I recently decided to leave Islam.
I was forcing myself to believe in something I didn’t believe in anymore. It was only a matter of time before I made the bold move.
Born in the UK to a conservative Muslim family of Pakistani descent, from a young age, I received the sort of traditional Islamic education doled out to many Muslims originally from the subcontinent but living in the West. As a child, I remember attending my local mosque straight after school every day. I sat in a class with other children my age and practiced reciting the Qur’an in Arabic (without understanding what I was reading) and learned the basic pillars of Islam.
During these formative years, I took everything I was taught very seriously. I prayed five times a day for most of my teenage years. I memorized the entire Qur’an and tried my best to emulate the practices of the Prophet Muhammad, based on narrations of the hadith.
For those outsiders who might wonder why I did these things, it was because I wanted to, not because I was forced to. I was sure that through dhikr, I was planting my trees in Jannat. In other words, I firmly believed my acts of worship were creating a better place for me in the afterlife, as so many others like me had been led to believe.
For much of my early life, my beliefs were protected by the confines of an exclusively Muslim social circle and regular mosque attendance. As soon as I began university, gaining more personal freedom and exposure to different ideas, I started to take a more skeptical approach to my religion. My secular education was opening my mind to a more impartial view of Islam. I began to wonder – if I can be critical of biology, history, and politics, why can’t I do the same with my faith?
To try and reaffirm my religiosity, I began a long-term, extensive study of Islam, drawing upon sources outside of traditional Islamic teaching. Ironically, this took me even farther away from my religion. I began to realize that there was no plausible reason to believe in the supernatural elements of Islam, such as revelations conveyed by the angel Gabriel or the idea of Heaven and Hell. Belief in these metaphysical elements had been core to my understanding of what Islam was. Losing this faith left me with little reason to continue practicing my religion.
In order to leave Islam completely, I still needed to undergo an emotional detachment. That came from seeing how a rigid, inflexible interpretation of Islam had affected my mother. A highly educated and once charismatic, fearless, and ambitious woman, my mother, who had come from a poor family in Karachi, had given up on her aspirations and dreams to come closer to Islam.
As her passion for life was replaced with her passion for life after death, she gradually became a shadow of the person she had once been. Her exuberance and vivacity had been sapped and replaced with paranoia and fear: anyone who deviated from her unbending version of Islam was met with the most severe posthumous chastisement. The effects of this insidious obsession on both my mother and family were enough to emotionally emancipate me from Islam.
To this day, however, only a handful of my closest Muslim friends know of my decision, and they have been fully supportive and remained no less close to me. Their anguish and regret in my decision is, nevertheless, clear.
As for my parents, I have not yet told them that I have left Islam. Their regret will undoubtedly be even more amplified, not only because of their unsurpassable and infinitely great love for me, but also because of their conviction in an inflexible, black and white version of Islam.
Lest anyone think their concern might be for the consequences to our family’s position in the Muslim community, this is not the case. My parents, as many other Muslim parents like them, would be genuinely frightened for the eternal, theological consequences for me of veering from the one, “true,” Islam – and not from any social stigma they might suffer, as a result.
I don’t want to upset my parents, which is why I have not told them until this point. For my mother, whose life revolves around Islam, the news would be heartbreaking. But, I also know that I cannot live a lie and love my mother enough to tell her the truth. It is, therefore, only a matter of time before I share my news with her.
It is a dismal reality and the most colossal burden I could have ever imagined. But, I am not afraid of being ostracized from my family, or becoming an outcast in my community. I am not afraid of the fiery eruption of emotion that my announcement will inevitably cause. I don’t fear anything, actually, because fear suggests I don’t know what the outcome will be.
Indeed, if I was fearful, I wouldn’t have written this piece to begin with. Instead, I decided to share my story of leaving Islam because I want to show other Muslims that I am coming from a sincere place. I am not trying to erase my Muslim identity, nor am I tired or frustrated by my parents’ rigid version of religiosity. I have simply come to the conclusion, after much serious and extensive study, that Islam is not a faith I can continue to practice.
At the same time, I am not telling my story in order to encourage others to follow my path. Nor am I interested in critiquing Islam’s holy scriptures. Most importantly, I did not write about my experience in order to demonize Muslims in any way. For far too long, Muslims have been vilified in the West. In the current political climate, they have been subjected to social injustices, alienation, and, increasingly, physical violence. With U.S. presidential candidates, like Donald Trump, proposing religious profiling of American Muslims and the rise of far-right, anti-Muslim groups in Europe, this zeitgeist is no illusion.
Since leaving Islam, I have come to understand that many Muslims can and do find sanctuary from this storm within their communities and families. After all, most hardships are easier to bear when you feel supported and connected to others who are facing the same difficulties. Nowadays, in the West, many Muslims take this shared unity for granted. I was guilty of this myself before departing from Islam.
Now that I have left, I have found myself without a community to console me. But even this challenge cannot compare with causing my loved ones so much anguish because of my decision to leave Islam.