Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

Articles, Comments

Ismahan Levi

I was born into a family of Saudi Arabian traders. My parents moved from Saudi Arabia to Syria, where I was born, to expand the business they owned and managed. When I was four years old my father decided the family would return to Saudi Arabia. From conversations I later had my mother I learned the six years he’d spent in Syria, though, had changed him. My parents were educated and well to do, but my father hadn’t travelled much in his lifetime before moving to Syria; it was there that he came into contact with people of different faiths and views and, through conversations with acquaintances and others, became aware of views which were at odds with those of his own Islamic faith. Despite financial gains, he was increasingly uncomfortable with being in close proximity with non-Islamic faiths and at the end of his sixth year in Syria decided to return to Saudi Arabia (and, as an acquaintance of mine would put it years later without mincing words, his comfort zone).

I was brought up in the Islamic fashion in Saudi Arabia and, when I was six, began to wear the dress insisted upon by Islam and society. As is usual in that country, I went to a girls-only school and learned “how to read the Quran”, how to be a good and obedient wife and mother, and how I could hope for an eternal life in paradise by remaining obedient to my husband. I believed this, as any six year-old would. My father insisted I also read the Quran aloud to him after dinner and explain to him, in my words, what the verses meant. The enjoyment he derived from listening to me read to him would turn to anger when, in later years, I began to question those same verses. By the age of seventeen I found the “education” I was receiving stultifying and discussed returning to Syria to study at a university there with my mother. I also told her I was opposed to the marriage arrangements my father was making for me, and that I wanted to have a university education as he had without the additional burden of being “an obedient wife”. The two of us spoke to my father about this and he agreed to it. Arrangements were made for me to live with family friends in Syria while I studied.

Coming from a strict and orthodox regime into the comparatively free Syrian society was like a breath of fresh air. There was, of course, the initial shock of finding oneself amongst peers who discussed politics and religion and enunciated what appeared to me at the time to be dangerous views, not realising that what was “daring” discussion in Syria was seen as middle of the road views in the West. Then there was the matter of dress. Furthermore, never having ventured out alone, it was almost daunting to be driven to class without my father and later, for the sake of convenience, to be given the opportunity to learn to drive a car! Once past the shock of this newfound openness and freedom I decided to make as much use of it as I could before returning to Saudi Arabia. Apart from my chosen subject at university I read as much as I could on religion, philosophy and sociology. I was trying to find the answers to the questions I had regarding the Quran. I still went to the mosque with my guardians every week and observed all the religious festivals for I was still a Muslim.

At the university library I couldn’t believe the sheer wealth of knowledge available on theology and Islam, on philosophy and sociology. The only books on theology I’d come across in my school library in Saudi Arabia dealt with Islam and Islam alone. As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned no other religion exists, save for those corruptions of Islam such as Judaism and Christianity. I was like the proverbial child in the candy store who is told she could have anything she wanted. For the first time I heard of al-Ma’ari. This was a watershed. The questions I’d asked of my father were naïve and childish compared to the views of al-Ma’ari asked. Like many Muslims before me have done, I spent a lot of time reading his Luzumiyat and other works if only to prove he was mistaken. His description of religion as a noxious weed, as a fable invented by the ancients, and his denial of a resurrection were heresy by any standards. For the first time, I read poetry which did not distinguish between Islam and other religions, treating all with equal contempt:

Hanifs are stumbling, Christians all astray

Jews wildered, Magians far on error's way.

We mortals are composed of two great schools

Enlightened knaves or else religious fools.

In Saudi Arabia I was taught that Islam is the only way to paradise. In Syria I heard discussions on the strengths and weaknesses of religions, but here, for the first time, I was reading words which dispensed with religion altogether. Having been brought up in a rigidly Islamic society it took a while before my mind could even grasp the concept. I recall staying up until three in the morning reading al-Ma’ari’s works trying to decipher the true meaning beyond his dissimulation, trying to find how he could claim to be a good man while ridiculing every Islamic tenet. This led me to further reading; I read the works of accepted Muslim apologists but they merely raised more questions. They either did not acknowledge those parts of the Quran which ran counter to their arguments or more or less stated that it had to be accepted on faith alone. I read the works of several “Orientalists”. These authors appeared to lend credence al-Ma’ari’s views. I took my problem to a trusted teacher at university. I spent hours with her discussing my dilemma. She pointed out two paths and told me she could give me a map, but the journey was mine to make.

I finally realised I was at a crossroad: I could continue to pursue what was an increasingly dangerous study and attempt to find the answers I sought or close once and for all the books I’d brought from the library and return to my comfortable Islamic way of life, where no questions on Islam and its prophet are brooked and none asked. The second option would ensure I had a materially comfortable life and I would sink into that pleasant anonymity wherein any ripples in life’s stream are soon calmed using the oils of religion. The first option, though more dangerous to my belief system, offered me answers to the questions which had dogged me for years. I could live the life my parents wanted me to live or I could try to find my answers even if it meant losing my faith

At the age of nineteen I read of an informal discussion, which was to be held at the university, on the relationship of Islam and Judaism. I went to the meeting expecting the usual softly-softly approach. A lecturer at the university was to speak on Islam while the person speaking on Judaism was a Jew who had just completed a doctoral thesis on a subject with relevance to religion. Within the first ten minutes of his speech the Jewish gentleman had demolished whatever ideas I held as to what constitutes a prophet. It became more serious from there on. He drew parallels between Judaism and Islam and demonstrated how the latter had to compete with other religions to gain the belief of the populace. Here, at last, were the answers I had been looking for, answers based on fact and not belief, on credibility not blind faith.

I got in touch with the gentleman and soon was involved in regular correspondence with him. This in itself was dangerous. Should my guardian family come to know I was corresponding with a Jew, they would not hesitate to contact my father and my newfound freedoms would come to an end immediately. However, the benefits, to my mind, outweighed the risks. For the first time in my life I had someone who could give me very specific answers to the questions I still had or point me to specific texts, thus saving me the bother of searching through several texts. We met on several occasions, always at cafes and other open venues and obviously without the knowledge of my guardians. When he invited me to his home to meet his family I was in two minds. To visit the house of a Jew was unthinkable to my family and yet we had, by now, struck up a strong and valued friendship. I went to his home for a meal.

His family welcomed me as warmly as mine would close and cherished friends. I’d half expected to encounter, if not coldness given my nationality and/or religion, at least some strain or difficulty. I was wrong, completely wrong. I was immediately made to feel part of the family, asked if I would care to pray over the meal to my Islamic deity, using Arabic. I declined because by then I was fast losing the faith I’d once held so strongly in Islam and its beliefs. By the end of that meal I knew beyond doubt that I was privileged to have met this family, these Jews I’d been brought up to regard as inimical to Islam and Muslims, and that we were to be friends forever. They are good people who hold to their religious views with great faith but have not, in the years that I have known them now, made the slightest attempt in any way to impose that faith upon me or even persuade me as to the validity of that faith. That meeting was the first of many, every one of them enjoyed, every minute cherished.

I returned to my guardian’s home and knew I had to re-think my values. The views I’d held of Jews in general were wrong. But if they were wrong what was I to make of the teachings in the Quran which emphasised their sins and perceived wrongdoing? I turned increasingly to my reading of the treatises on the Quran until I realised that I wasn’t looking for explanations any longer but a valid excuse which would allow me to maintain the beliefs with which I’d been brought up. It was with a heavy heart that I realised that blind belief in a self-contradictory text was not for me any longer.

At the same time, the meetings with my Jewish friend grew more frequent and when he proposed to me I accepted. He told me he recognised the difficulties we would face and the obvious physical danger to his family and us. He also told me that we would have to emigrate from Syria even if my family accepted our relationship.

When I telephoned my father to explain my feelings and actions he was furious and disowned me. He had me declared apostate in Saudi Arabia and Syria and ensured my name was mentioned as an apostate in mosques there. My fiancé and I knew we had to leave Syria immediately. We were married very shortly thereafter and, despite our hardships, have never once regretted our decision. We moved to a Western nation where we now reside permanently. I maintained surreptitious contact with my Mother who, while saddened at the prospect of never seeing me again, tried to understand the rationale behind my loss of faith. My husband and I developed our respective careers in our new homeland.

About six months ago, towards the end of 2002, my Mother called me to tell me that my father was very ill. Few think of their parents as mortal, it may be the last vestiges of the child within us. The news came as a shock. Greater was the shock, though, at the news that my father wished to see me again, together with my husband. We couldn’t meet in Saudi Arabia - that would have been foolhardy; so we met (with no small difficulty to my father) in Syria. The meeting was emotional. I tried to explain to my father what I felt, my beliefs, my love for my husband. He explained to me his anger at having his beliefs shattered by his daughter and the pressure brought to bear upon him by relatives and friends to have me declared apostate. Then came the reconciliation. He told me I was his still his daughter, that he couldn’t deny me, that he accepted my husband as his son-in-law, and that he now knew that no god would tear a family apart. His death five weeks later was all the more bitter because of our reconciliation, of the lack of time to say all we wanted.

My husband and I returned to our home in the West knowing my father’s relatives and friends would still persecute us had we decided to remain in Syria. I have now given up any faith I ever had in Islam. I see it for what it is: a man-made, duplicitous fabrication, a lust for power which tolerates no resistance, despite what its texts might claim. I also know now it is this very intolerance which will be its downfall. The West need not start a crusade against Islam to destroy it; its complete and total metamorphosis will come from within. The process has begun in Iran, with Soroush at the forefront, which is ironic, seeing that the latest Islamic surge began there in 1979.

For me, it cannot come too soon.

Used with permission from Faith Freedom