An Olive Branch to Ex-Muslims

There’s a fair amount of understandable anger and vitriol among those that have left Islam alongside a dizzying amount of issues to contend with – one’s family, one’s identity, one’s place in the grand scheme of things, etc. I say understandable because it’s a fair reaction to a belief that people often feel or have felt confined and bound by due to their upbringing and, dare I say, misinformation from mullahs to muftis to one’s own relatives. And before that triggers an onslaught of naysayers and ad hominems, hear me out. I was just like you if you can believe it.

In short, I grew up in an Islamic household in small town America that went from fairly normal to fanatical upon moving to Saudi Arabia for a spell. My parents (yes, I still love them dearly!) became obsessed with rules and strictures to the point of absurdity. Many of you know the drill – the most mundane, trivial misstep resulted in perishing in hellfire for all eternity. Worse, I attended a parochial school in Saudi Arabia where teachers habitually slapped students around. For example, if our feet were not perfectly aligned with one another during prayers, a brutal turd of a teacher would sneak up behind us and whip our feet with a rubber hose in the supposed name of Islam. Imagine going from a sweet old lady as one’s grade school teacher to that. I habitually vomited every time I stepped off the bus out of anxiety and fear. Thank God my friends were mostly refugees who taught me to toughen up. Back in the States I could only relate to folks generations before me who had similar stories growing up in Catholic schools.

Upon returning to America three years later, my older brother and I quickly began to shed our religious skin. We grew wild the way preachers’ sons in America grow wild. We lived two very different lives: the one inside our home and the one outside. My brother abandoned God entirely while I simply grew to hate Him. For many former Muslims I sense that same resentment toward Heaven. For some, it’s difficult to shuck the belief in God altogether. Instead, a rueful spite forms. I get that as well.

Later, as an adult I grew even wilder, slowly entering a wilderness of proverbial sin and despair (even if we don’t use the term ‘sin’ I certainly wasn’t making good choices) in part because I inherited all my orphaned father’s unrequited ghosts and because of the inherent sense of dislocation than many sons and daughters of immigrants feel or have felt no matter where they are. Still, I managed to publish my first poem in The Seattle Review around this time. I’d finally captured how I’d felt as a boy on paper, warts and all, regarding faith and loneliness:

A Small, Dark Boy

I thought I could pray
hard beside the schoolyard wall
right before the recess bell
to keep from being this

permanent stranger in the only town
I had known. All the pretty girls
seemed to fall between the spaces
of my open hand. I had to
pray a little more. I thought

I could betray what I knew
to be imminent: for a long while
I would have to be alone.

At this point, I began my academic pursuit of philosophy and literature. This led me to the studying of religious philosophy which led me toward various academic scholars of Islam. Now I say Islamic scholars, but most of them were non-Muslims. I’m not talking about muftis or mullahs. It is supremely ironic and cannot be emphasized enough that it was non-Muslims who allowed me to slowly rediscover Islam. If this is an indictment on the current state of Islam as practiced by many Muslims so be it. The Islam I was learning about from scholars such as Anne Marie Schimmel, Carl Ernst, Huston Smith, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, etc., was literally night and day to the Islam I was taught as a boy. Even now, ten or more so years later, I continue to devour their works among so many others. Gone was all the fire and brimstone and obsessing over pork and premarital sex ad infinitum (my folks even had a book entitled, Gelatin)! Certainly the principles were not dismissed nor abandoned, but emphasis was put on the big picture, ideas and humanness toward one another in relation to God rather than rote dogma and an often idiotic zeal for strictures. Did I suddenly stumble back onto the proverbial straight path? Of course not. However, it did manage to pry open the proverbial door to both faith and Islam and, most importantly, a genuine sense of peace and contentment (not always, of course, but more so than I ever could have imagined) after so many years of restlessness, ennui and despair.

Of course, I’m not trying to sell you on Islam or anything else, I’m just suggesting that maybe don’t slam the door on God just yet, even if that means finding another path toward Him. And in doing so, be fair, not only to others, but to yourself. I’ve perused a lot of the posts and comments on /r/exmuslim. Many of you are young, highly intelligent and engaging. However, when I read your comments regarding the Quran or Prophet (pbuh) they seem borne more out of frustration and anger than logic or some careful exegetical analysis.

Many of you are avid readers and understand that reading poetry and literature often requires a high level of comprehension to fully understand or, at least, better understand what is being said. Two telling examples for me in this regard happen to be two of my favorite books: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick. When I read these novels in the 8th grade they were just fun adventures and not much else. However, when I reread them in my late 20’s the breadth and scope of these works seemed, at times, limitless, especially, Huck Finn.

I understand that many of you have deep-seated resentments toward Islam and therefore the Quran and Hadith. As result, it’s become quite common (and easy) to henpeck verses, refuse context or a deeper understanding in order to prove its inadequacy. This is more a disservice to your intellect and humanity than anything else. If you’re venting vent. I get it. However, only the most daft of literalists would argue that Ode to a Nightingale is about Keats’ love of ornithology. The same goes for any scripture or religious text as well. At the very least, respect the nature of discourse lest we devolve into rants akin to FOX news.

This is already decidedly longer in the proverbial tooth than I had hoped and there is so much more to be said regarding notions of identity and whatnot, but I’ll leave you with a few quotes:

“No one wants advice – only corroboration.” – John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

“Don’t waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“When all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary.” – William James, Varieties of Religious Experiences

Be well and take care.  Amen.

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “An Olive Branch to Ex-Muslims

  1. Hi!

    I just wanted to say firstly I really enjoyed reading this and I genuinely could not agree more. I have only very recently made the decision to leave Islam, but have seen that from both the Muslims and Ex-Muslims there is a lot of anger, hatred and resentment to anything on this subject. I definitely feel there has to be a way to reconcile both groups peacefully and although I understand these emotions from both sides, it just isn’t fruitful. I do want to conduct my own research into all of this, now I have had the chance to remove myself from that environment for a while, so that I can make sure I am making the best and most fully-informed decision. I was wondering if by any chance you could share some of the names of the books and resources that helped you on your journey of rediscovery?

    Many, many thanks 🙂

    Hadeesa

  2. Hi!

    I just wanted to say firstly I really enjoyed reading this and I genuinely could not agree more. I have only very recently made the decision to leave Islam, but have seen that from both the Muslims and Ex-Muslims there is a lot of anger, hatred and resentment to anything on this subject. I definitely feel there has to be a way to reconcile both groups peacefully and although I understand these emotions from both sides, it just isn’t fruitful. I do want to conduct my own research into all of this, now I have had the chance to remove myself from that environment for a while, so that I can make sure I am making the best and most fully-informed decision. I was wondering if by any chance you could share some of the names of the books and resources that helped you on your journey of rediscovery?

    Many, many thanks 🙂

    Hadeesa

    1. Hi Hadeesa,

      Thanks for the compliment. I understand where you’re coming from. I can certainly suggest some books to read to help in your explorations. Perhaps the best book on the major religious traditions is Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions. Smith founded the philosophy department at MIT, is a renowned scholar of religions and taught at such prestigious universities as Berkeley and Syracuse. His approach is decidedly unique, may even go against current trends in academia, but was a boon to both my intellect and soul. I had the good fortune of meeting him some years ago when he was presented the Bridge Builder Award at Loyola-Marymount University.

      The World’s Religions alongside his other works certainly reignited my faith when it had all but reduced to nothing more than a flicker. From there I began an academic study of tasawwuf (sufism) reading the likes of William Chittick and Carl Ernst. Of course, I have multiple translations of the Quran that I cross-reference with one another and perhaps the greatest collection of Hadith can be found in Suhrawardy’s deceptively simple collection entitled The Wisdom of Muhammad.

      Regarding faith in general, I have to say that poetry and literature were and are still an absolute boon to my faith. Of course, the Russians are huge in this regard. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky provide tremendous insight on the subject in both War and Peace and Brothers Karamazov. Another incredibly imaginative even magical work on the subject is Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s epic novella, Arabian Nights and Days. It’s one of the few books I’v reread a number of times. Even the darker, desperate works of, say, Anne Sexton, provide insight into faith, not by way of inspiration, but introspection. One can certainly cull some wisdom from even the bitterness and despair that informs such works. Of course, the hope is to learn from it and not become infatuated with such outpourings.

      I’d suggest not being in any haste to make a decision regarding whether or not you’re a Muslim or not. Faith is less about identity and more about direction. By all means explore, study and ask questions. More often than not, the answers we seek are predicated on the questions we are willing to ask. “The only journey is the journey within.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

      I hope that helps some :).

      1. Hi! Thank you so much for all of those recommendations and for your advice, I appreciate it a lot. You are right for sure. Being able to remove myself from a religious environment, even just for a few weeks, has made me want to conduct my own research, and I hope I’ll be open to whatever it is I find and feel. Thanks once again, have a lovely weekend! 🙂

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