The steep path

I understand the need of disenfranchised people to stand together in solidarity, but Ex-Muslim activism comes across as just another sect, its activists behaving exactly like the fundamentalists they decry. There are former Muslims, lapsed Muslims, irreligious Muslims, agnostics, converts to other faiths, seekers and small e ex-Muslims; most of these I can get along with just fine. I was an agnostic in my youth and have been a seeker through most of my adulthood, firm in absolutes only for a few short months at the height of my convertitus. Capital E Ex-Muslims very much remind me of myself in the convertitus phase, caught up on absolutes and certainties, and overdosing in self-righteousness.

I am not particularly fond of capital E Ex-Muslim activists, but perhaps that’s just because of their over-reliance on the tired anti-Muslim polemics I have been reading for over twenty years. In time they will have to discover that there is nuance even on their side of the fence. Perhaps they will discover, like many of their Muslim counterparts, that focussing only on puritanical, hardline readings of the faith is a dead end. Perhaps they will have to confront the reality that taking in fourteen hundred years of history across multiple cultures and continents is a big ask for anyone, and that reductionist, simplistic readings of history help no one.

To me, Ex-Muslim activism seems to be a product of the lamentable state of Muslim education. Its modes of engagement seem to be inspired by the dawah industry, preaching to the converted, appealing to the insecure to seek easy answers to every question. I much prefer the seeking agnostic, who sifts through all of the data available to them, always willing to throw out discounted ideas and move on. That was the way of the the prophets through the ages, as they wandered in the wilderness or ascended mountains to ponder and reflect in solitude, seeking out answers to their inner quest for meaning.

Far away from the maddening crowds, who push a narrow, infantile vision of religion, we come across a message which challenges conventional wisdom. It says do not just slavishly follow the ways of your forefathers: it says challenge them, evaluate them, probe them, determine good and bad. It says do not just blindly follow your sages and scholars: it says many of them lead the people astray. It says do not be unjust, and do not give half measure, and do not let corruption become rife, and repel oppression. The true seeker seeks all these things. One day, I pray, they will take up that path, substituting the inherited faith with something more real.

The one who rejects their inheritance is not necessarily the enemy. They are on a journey, as we all are. Many such folk exhibit great bravery, sincerity, integrity. They have seen something that is wrong and have rejected it; though their community may anathematise them, ironically they often move closer to the faith they appear to renounce. Unbeknownst even to themselves, they have adopted the steep path, the difficult ascent, praised by the Lord of the universe. To those we must say welcome.

But for those rejectors who have merely created a new sect of their own, still preaching their great absolutes from the other side of the fence: that is just a dead end, leading nowhere. That is just a battle between brethren, deploying identical arguments from opposite sides of the fence, proselytising for a moment in time. They think themselves rebels, but the rebel way is something else entirely.

And what can make you know what is the steep path?
It is to free a slave,
to feed at a time of hunger
an orphaned relative
or a poor person in distress,
and to be one of those who believe and urge one another to steadfastness and compassion.
Those are the companions of the right.
Quran 90:11-18

The road to truth necessarily begins with doubt. As a philosopher had it: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” Take up that path. It is a good thing to do. But do not rest at your first stopping point and think that you have arrived. The search is a life-long journey, in which you must ascend a difficult path. Be assured, you are nowhere near your destination yet. So journey on.

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