I have had crises of faith since adolescence. In truth, they never really leave you.
The first that I recall occurred on Christmas Eve 1990, just after my parents had left home for the midnight service. In a moment of introspection, I resolved to read the Bible from cover to cover, and even write it out by hand. I never did, but it marked an early yearning to believe as those around me did.
Another crisis of faith occurred a couple of years later, during a one-week stay on the Isle of Iona in the Scottish Hebrides. Mid-week, in a moment of teenage melancholic theatrics, I climbed to the highest point of the island to stage a protest against God, telling him that he was not real and was not there.
For the next few years I wavered between atheism, agnosticism and a monotheism without name. In my agnosticism and simple monotheism, I was sincere. As an agnostic, always striving to believe, despite inner doubts. As a monotheist, resolute that God was one; in my continued attendance of church, I would utter the first sentence of the Nicene Creed alone: “I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”
A search, of sorts, characterised the next few years, through my mid to late teens and beyond. At the end of my first year at university, I chose to take myself to account and seek faith to counteract evils within. I sought out a church for the new academic year, to attend each week in my pursuit of faith. When a preacher dissuaded me that he was serious, I left that pursuit and wandered off in search of monotheism.
Weeks later I would be found testing something resembling Islam. I had the Penguin Classics, The Koran, rendered into English by an Iraqi Jew, which I took as a guide for a new form of prayer in which I would stand and prostrate, and later fast each day until I could no longer see white threads in the sky. I knew nothing of fiqh or hadith, and took no Muslim as a guide, and confided in no one. It was the start of a nascent faith, until I delved into a book by the pseudonymous author, Ibn Warraq, that I had found in the library, which blew out that ember of faith for a time.
In the months that followed, I dabbled with a Christian cult active in central London, interacting with enthusiastic worshipers and evangelists. Simultaneously, I began mining the Islamic Dawah sites of the early web, seeking out new information that seemed convincing to my immature mind. Ultimately some ideas I encountered there led me towards faith in Islam, and shortly afterwards I uttered the testimony of faith in the presence of some Muslim students.
Was that the end of the road then, and the beginning of an era of unshakeable faith? Far from it, for crises of faith never leave you, self-doubt ever present. Within weeks I was mining the counterarguments of evangelical Christian websites dedicated to attacking Islam and Muslims, chewing over their arguments within. Within months I would encounter the sectarianism of Muslims, and the argumentation and conflict, leading me to wonder what on earth I had done. Another convert scoffed: “You have jumped aboard a sinking ship!”
As the years pass by, some things become clear, solidifying in your mind: some things become certain, unshakeable. Other things never seem to settle. At best, you put them in a box at the back of your mind to return to later, once you have more information, or have understood its context or intent. Sometimes you get to move it out of that box, for it to become a part of your belief and practice. More often you just stuff more in on top, to forget about until you are reminded of it years later. Occasionally, you will just toss the box away.
I tend to have a crisis of faith every year in Ramadan. This is the month when I resolve to really focus on the meaning of the Quran, reading passages rendered into the English language. I flip between multiple translations — I have so many of them — intending to settle down to read for hours on end, sometimes in the early morning after fajr, sometimes late in the afternoon. Sometimes I delight in a passage, sometimes listening to the sound of it in the original Arabic as I read its meaning in my native tongue. Sometimes I seem to be making progress, but mostly I just struggle as it challenges me.
Ramadan is the month when that box comes out, into which I put all that troubles me. I hold fast to everything I can hold onto. As ever, there is my living faith — the faith that is real to me, which I experience and cherish — and my intellectual faith which causes me to stumble. The forces of history, doctrine, scholarship. In the face of the intellectual faith comes self-doubt — doubt that I will ever make the grade and pass this fearsome test.
But this is no mournful lament. Crises of faith have driven me forward for thirty years. They have been the impetus behind my search for truth. The crisis which descends on me year after year motivates me to journey on, to search and seek all the more, the gnawing discomfort within still driving me forward.
My advice in the face of a crisis of faith is this: hold on. Be patient. Keep praying. Keep asking for guidance and mercy. Keep seeking, sincerely. Hold onto to that inner faith; the living faith within. Be grateful for the blessings you have been given. Meditate deeply on the world around you. Cast your eyes to the night sky and count a billion stars. Wander in the garden and watch how the plants grow. Ponder on your sight and hearing, or on DNA, cells, neurons. Give thought to the universes all around you to recognise: not for naught was all of this created.
Hold on. Now is not the time to let go. Hold fast. Hold on.