After reading so may testimonials about those who have left Islam on this and other websites I decided to describe for others how I became interested in Islam but eventually became disillusioned and left. First I should let you know I am an American and was raised in a secular family. I was raised on scientific rationalism and never had any formal religious background.
When I was a teen I attended a catholic high school (only for one year) and was required to read the New Testament. It was at this point that I became fascinated with religion and spirituality. For me, coming from an agnostic background where religion was generally ignored, the New Testament was an inspiration and deeply moving. I never bought into the simplistic aspects of Christianity, the creation of the world in seven days, Adam and Eve, etc. but was drawn by the message of love, ethics and a sense of purpose for this worldly existence. Interest in Christianity and religion in general led me to investigate other religions and spiritual paths: Buddhism, Hinduism, Zen, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Native American spirituality, and ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. I became a voracious reader of ancient religious and spiritual scriptures of various different cultures. Eventually I came across Islamic mysticism (Sufism). I read all the books I could find on the topic and was particularly impressed with the works of Idries Shah
Sufism seemed to me to be the most sensible and relevant form of spirituality for modern society. It appealed to my disdain of organized religion and meaningless rituals, it stressed one should be “in the world but not of the world” and the ultimate goal is not a location or reward, i.e. “Heaven” but a reality: spiritual knowledge and enlightenment. Sufism did not appear to be at odds with modern science and did not demand that one reject sensible theories such as evolution and physics. Sufism in fact, was presented as a science itself (tasawwuf). Sufism was described as the inner meaning of Islam, the interior kernel, which was protected by an exterior shell, composed of the formal laws and doctrine of Islam. Islamic poetry, particularly Persian, was shown to be a vehicle in which Sufi mystics hid spiritual knowledge in the worldly praise of love and pleasure. The Quran was alleged to contain seven layers of understanding, each one more sublime, which would become apparent as one progressed in spiritual understanding. For me Sufism legitimized Islam.
The first time I read the Quran in translation I was disappointed, as it seemed to lack the inspirational message of other religious scriptures. I contented myself with the fact that I would probably need to read it in the original Arabic to obtain its spiritual message. I undertook the daunting task of learning classical Arabic. I studied Arabic for four years and I’ll admit I never became fluent in speaking the language but I was able to read it (with some difficulty and the constant need of a dictionary!).
Shortly before the first Gulf war I was offered a job in Saudi Arabia. I had recently graduated from college and felt this would be an excellent opportunity to really learn Arabic fluently. I was told it would be best if I became a Muslim to accept the position since the family that owned the company lived in Mecca and if I didn’t become a Muslim I would have to find a place to live in Jeddah. To me it seemed a mere formality so I said I would become Muslim. Fortunately, as it would turn out, I was unable to take this job because of the war.
Though I didn’t get the chance to work in Saudi Arabia, I became increasingly interested in traditional Islam and decided to investigate a local mosque close to where I lived. I went there several months to study the Quran in Arabic and it was here that I first came across aspects of Islam, which really troubled me. The members of the Mosque seemed genuinely delighted that an American would be interested in Islam and were very welcoming but they were less than enthusiastic about American culture. My interest was to learn more about the Quran but instead I ended up listening to sermons, which seemed to be primarily concerned with politics and condemnation of perceived Western values. Though most of the Moslems at this mosque were not Arabs they seemed to be obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian issue and yet I never heard them mention anything about injustices done to Moslems by other fellow Muslims such as the massacre of the Kurds in Iraq, civil war in Afghanistan or the slaughter of thousands of Algerians by extremists. It was also there that I first heard such alarming ideas as the consequences for apostasy and various other “enlightened” aspects of the shari’a. These ideas seemed rather cult like. I found no spirituality in the company of traditional Moslems. Eventually I decided to leave and never returned.
I still did not make the connection that this was what Islam was really all about because I rationalized that the “inner” message of Islam was about spiritual knowledge and these people were obsessed with the outward forms of religion, not it’s true message. I began to read the Hadith and the biography of the Prophet (Sirat-un-Nabi) to gain a better understanding of Islam’s message and to weigh it against the values I understood from the perspective of Sufism. It was at this point that I began to have my doubts about the spirituality of the Prophet Muhammad. The commandments of the Quran and Hadith seemed to advocate a brutal, inflexible ethics lacking in any redeeming values. The biography of Muhammad was filled with examples of violence and questionable deeds for one who was supposedly guided by a God of love and peace. The biography put into context many of the Suras of the Quran and left the impression of a revelation whose purpose was to explain and justify Muhammad’s worldly deeds. The requirements for everyday conduct seemed to be more of a burden than a guide for a meaningful life. What is the true spiritual meaning of wiping the top of your feet before you pray? Or the prohibition of wearing silk! Will your prayer from the heart not be accepted because you didn’t perform a proper Wudu? Why is Islam against adoption? Is it a religious duty to hate and kill Jews and unbelievers? And always, the primitive threat of Hell! Even the reward for a “righteous” life seemed to lack any spiritual grace and refinement. Essentially an eternal cosmic orgy!
I didn’t reject Islam outright; rather, I slowly drifted away from it as the realities became more and more unsavory. Increasingly I distanced myself from the rigid views and doctrines espoused by Islam and tried to associate with the more benign views of the religion, which I felt was its true meaning. I clung to ideas such as “the true jihad in Islam is against one’s lower nature”, and “there is no compunction in religion”, which allowed me to rationalize the notion that most Muslims in the world were simply not following the real Islam. In fact it was I who was not following it!
I still believed that there were decent “moderate” Moslems although I was always surprised that they were nowhere to be found or heard from after any of the increasingly common Islamic atrocities were committed around the world. Although most Moslems in the US stress that the actions of a “few” extremists do not define the religion, I could see that almost the entire Islamic world took great delight in the WTC tragedy. If there was ever a time for the “real Islam” to show itself and denounce the “perversion” of it’s true teachings it was after this event. Instead Muslims seemed to rationalize that it was justified because of all the terrible things America is doing to the Muslim world (probably much worse than what the Mongols did!) or they concocted fanciful conspiracy theories about how the Israelis carried out the attacks to discredit Islam. I was stunned and appalled at the primitive stupidity and barbarity of the Islamic world’s reaction to this outrage. Only Iranian people seemed to show any sympathy to the victims and I’m sure it was mainly those who are fed up with Islam. I found myself making excuses to others that this was not what Islam really teaches but it began to sound less and less convincing. I became aware that my life was based on contradictions. On the one hand my sense of right and wrong were based on my upbringing and the society that had raised me, yet the Islamic faith that I had embraced appeared to be the antithesis of these values. After 9/11 I realized that I just couldn’t make excuses for the outrages being committed in the name of Islam. The religion itself is fatally flawed. How could one have any affiliation whatsoever with such a doctrine?
For years now the books were gathering dust in the garage, as I have lost all outward affiliation and interest in Islam. I guess I just became a “bad Muslim”. The final break for me was the sight of slaughtered school children in the recent tragedy in Beslan, Russia carried out by Islamic “freedom fighters”. I grabbed my Yusuf Ali Quran, along with several other books about Fiqh, prayer, Muhammad’s life, etc., took them out back and shot them full of holes. I then tossed the tattered remnants into the barbeque and watched them burn to ashes. I felt a great sense of freedom and a final purge from this barbaric creed as the pages and words twisted and disappeared in the flames!
There may be a spiritual reality in Sufism but if there is it was not derived from Islam or Muhammad. Islam teaches that the good that comes to you is from God and the bad is from yourself (I wonder what the children of Beslan did to earn their punishment?) I think it would be more appropriate to say that any good in the Islamic world comes from somewhere else and the bad is all from Islam!
I would conclude by saying that I’m very fortunate to live in a country, which allows people the freedom to believe or not believe in any religion they choose. I have the utmost respect for those who live in the tyranny of Islamic countries and decide to think for themselves and live by their conscience, often with the consequences of great personal hardships and danger to their lives. To all such people everywhere I look forward to the day when you can live your lives in freedom and peace.
Read Ali Sina's commentary
permission from Faith