Introduction: That Muslim Was an Atheist
I was on a flight to Los Angeles many years ago, and after a few hours of nobly but futilely fighting the boredom, I ventured a conversation with the middle-aged man fate and ticketing had seated next to me. We started chatting because we were listless, but soon found a common interest.
It turned out that my fellow passenger was a diehard L.A. Lakers fan. Unlike me, he was a successful dentist who lived in southern California, which rendered his experience of the Lakers qualitatively superior to mine in nearly every respect. Since the early 1980s, this man had had season tickets to our favorite team. He’d not just lived through but witnessed firsthand the golden ages of purple reign.
He’d sat through the playoffs, too. Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Shaq, Kobe. On their way to ten titles! I was ablaze with jealousy.
But later in our conversation, as the topic shifted to our respective travels, he made an offhand remark about how Middle Easterners “don’t respect human life,” and complained that Muslims don’t condemn terrorism. I’m usually stunned when folks make wild generalizations to my obviously non-European face; considering I once used the paint matcher at Home Depot on my skin, and was identified as mocha cappuccino, where did this guy think I was from?
Not to mention: I was flying to the other side of the country, at not inconsiderable expense to myself, as part of a commitment to a diverse American Muslim community still finding its way. And yet I was told that not one of us did or said anything to fight back against the ugliness and barbarity of indiscriminate violence. Too many people—not just dentists on Virgin Airlines—make statements like, “Muslims don’t do enough to reject terrorism.” It’s probable many of them have never met Muslims.
If they tried, they might be surprised. In fact, the reaction to my essay—you’ll read an excerpt below—has surprised me, too. I wish I could find my airline companion and give him this book, to surprise him, too—in a good way. (I would accept Lakers tickets in lieu of apologies, but I think that particular era is done.) This whole book is a result of a profound evolution, and needs to be seen as such.
American Muslims have gone through a lot over the last few decades. We were never the caricature Islamophobes made us out to be (our earliest heroes include Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Malcolm X), but we’ve had real problems with narrow-mindedness, institutional immaturity, misogyny, and religious illiteracy—these persist in places, but I think not like they did before.
And that’s because American Muslims were able to separate Islam from its practitioners, giving a new generation—or at least enough of us—a sense of ownership deep enough to support an agenda of reform and renewal. My own struggles with my faith and community weren’t very different; I cared and care about my faith, but in the process of trying to help, I badly wounded myself.
Sometimes the way you get hurt points the way forward.
Even after I wrote up my essay and sent it in, I still trembled, assuming I’d face a terrible backlash. I grew up in very orthodox circumstances, and the Muslim community remains one that takes faith very seriously. So how would such a community respond to an admission of anger with Allah?
Overwhelmingly, the reaction has been one of gratefulness and generosity. As it turns out, I wasn’t alone. Many other young Muslims dove into their faith, and were nearly broken in the process. For those of us who came out the other side, it has been a liberating experience, empowering precisely because it is founded on gentleness and reticence.
Which shows how far American Muslims have come, and how much our communities have changed. We’ve invested in people, re-engaged our religious tradition, built bridges with the world, fought back in horror at the ugliness perpetrated in our name and discovered in the process what we think faith asks of us. That philosophy—if it is not too much to call it that—asks that we leave no room in ourselves for the kind of certainties which confuse the Absolute for the contingent.
I made that mistake before. I think a fair number of Muslims have, and may still be doing so. I wrote this so that they might know: You’re not alone in the struggle. But I also wrote it for that dentist on the airplane, with whom I shared so much in common. You might only hear ugly things about Islam, and depressing things about Muslims. But we are so much more than that.
The Faith That Faith Produced
I was washing dishes in the kitchen when I stopped believing in God. Years later, I’m often unsettled at how much of my life I’d spent in that kitchen and how little of it I can recall, except for that one moment. Overwhelmed by constant desperation, I turned suddenly courageous, pondered what might happen if He didn’t exist, decided that He didn’t, and then He was gone. I think the rapid departure hit me the hardest. How had I been so easily taken in? I was raised to believe I should be Muslim, before everything and after everything. My brain bought into this priority and everywhere reproduced it, till I’d spawned a deranged monster running wild in my head, condemning everything I came across as insufficiently Islamic. And not just other people; I was the harshest judge of my disappointingly un-Muslim self. In that kitchen, that life of forced and faux piety reached its theological dénouement. It popped up as I pivoted from the sink to the dishwasher: What if I could sin, because sin wasn’t sin? And then—what if He didn’t care what I did, because He wasn’t?
If there was no God, my caustic monster could be driven into a corner, and then pummeled bloodied and helpless. My frustration, late night breakdowns, and everyday desolation would leave me be. And so I did it. I did what even the pagan Arabs around Muhammad, (peace be upon him), refused to do: I rejected God altogether. And on ceasing to be a Muslim, it occurred to me that perhaps this was not only a good thing, but also a reasonable thing. If with sudsy hands and slippery dishes I could just let God go, then it seemed—almost inevitably—that I’d never really believed in Him, anyway.
So what happened after I renounced Allah? There was that sense that I’d perhaps never believed. There was, of course, the awkward flinch. The waiting, looking behind my back and all around me, with the faucet still at full blast while I listened to the sound of a world absent of divinity. There was even some disbelief in the efficacy of my disbelief, an uncertainty of what I had just accomplished. Just because I chose not to believe in God, how could that mean He didn’t exist? And then, more worryingly—could I really get away with this?
I was so taken by the sense of Him—impossibly demanding, relentlessly censorious—that I feared He’d still punish me even from non-existence. Not too different from how, even when you’re a little bit grown up, you still check for monsters under the bed. Perhaps the dishwasher would explode or I’d somehow drown in a never-before clogged kitchen sink, and the police would only find my bloated body days later. Such was the depth of my Islam.
We call them dark nights of the soul. The idea is ascribed to a Spanish Muslim, Ibn ‘Abbad ar-Rundi, though at the time I had no idea what was happening to me. It would’ve been nice to have known that my spiritual anguish didn’t mean I was rejecting faith, or being rejected by the object of my faith. Such anguish might be a purging; God nudging us to reject something in ourselves, an error in our acts or our aspirations. But I was never taught Islam as a journey, even though I came from a religious family.
I grew up in an environment where religion and religious ideas frequently circulated. Much of the time they just squatted there, competing with the oxygen. The study of Arabic was facilitated. Going to the masjid was beyond routine; it was habit. I found myself convinced, or made myself convinced, by what we called orthodoxy. But it wasn’t my faith—or my practice. My knowledge of Islam did worse than paralyze me—it defeated me. I mean altogether wrecked me.
How could I, (1) complete all of the endless tasks Islam assigned, (2) make sure I was doing them for the right reasons, and (3) keep on the watch, the straight and narrow, not for weeks or months, but for decades, to satisfy this God into not burning me alive? I might live Islamically, but just for a few days, and thereafter I’d give in to temptations my Islam had no room for, my religious education gave me no means to comprehend, and my sense of the divine gave me no slack to grapple with.
Islam left me crumpled in otherworldly exhaustion, the spiritual effort to be Muslim wearying me like no physical exertion ever could. Beyond those occasional days filled with a passion for God—there was nothing. Not the least inclination to have anything to do with Him. And, after enough of that, I wanted out. Out of the guilt and endless hand-wringing; a way to throttle that judgmental monster of my mind, to tell him to take a life-long time-out in the corner, euthanize him or expel him, deport or detain him—anything to give me some peace.
I’d had enough of the questions, the doubts, the self-incrimination, the endless feelings of unworthiness, the inability to find myself in the desperate hatred of myself for my own weakness. I was sick of asking which of these feelings were legitimate and which illegitimate, which were epiphenomenal and which inevitable—the distinctions between which seem stupidly petty unless you’re trying so damn hard to figure out why the prayer rug seems to take over the room and chase you from it.
In a Muslim tradition, we read that God told Muhammad, “I am as My servant thinks of Me.” If we think of Him as angry, He’ll be angry with us. Soon my rage at an implacable God bounced off of Him and stuck to me. Anger. Envy. Frustration. A hatred of myself and my desires, and a flood of negative energy that, religiously and psychologically speaking, I could only direct against my God or myself. If I couldn’t meet the challenge He’d set for me, then why was I even alive? And, of course, when faith leads one to turn on oneself, then not surprisingly it becomes easier to choose deicide over suicide.
The Qur’an says God created humankind to piously serve Him. And He tests us in this, to see if we’ll live up to our purpose. But He never asked us if we wanted to go along. And despite our lack of choice, we’re still expected to perform. On the few occasions I managed to bring this up to some Muslims for their advice, I got this response: God knows us better than we know ourselves. When He gave us Islam, it’s like a doctor prescribing medication. (Figures a community of medical professionals would think that made sense.) But I didn’t see why the doctor who created us, created us sick, and more than that, held us to account for a failure to take His medicine. No other doctor throws you in hell if you dispute his prescription.
Many who question God’s existence are more concerned with His relevance to them than any metaphysics. We can only be free if we remove the shackles of faith, these self-ruining feelings of incompleteness, prudery and debasement, and accept the inevitability of our random lives. I don’t mean to be flippant. This is how it seemed to me, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t knock me off my feet. Why spend my existence fighting myself, when I was doing a pretty crap job of it anyway, suffer a personally unsatisfying and intellectually marginal existence, and then burn in hell?
I wanted so badly for the absence of Him to free me—from moral failures, from rigid standards I could not live within, and from a life of lonely denial. I wanted to stop being angry at the world and stop hating myself. And so there I was, washing dishes. Even now, it amazes me how suddenly the idea popped into my mind, how audacious it was, and yet how quickly I embraced it. That absence of belief felt like a physical absence, like remembering the house you grew up in only to realize you’d been alone all your life, and none of the people you recalled filling up the other rooms even when you couldn’t see them had ever really been there.
And now, years later, why tell a story whose very point constitutes Islam’s gravest sin? Only because we need to be honest, as we used to be. Once, our mentors and scholars, our music and literature, and even our architecture, were devoted to the admission of Islam as a journey, throughout which we needed every support we could have. We’ve lately become so enraptured by Islam’s simplicity, portability, and rationality, that we’ve confused the accessibility of a tradition with the mastery of the destination it sets before us.
Islam’s deceptively easy declaration of itself—there is no God but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of that God—is a testimony (shahadah) whose only realization is existential. For I was taught the shahadah, and I still despaired of God. Just to speak these words, and to mean them, may take all of a lifetime, and it is for this reason that, for Islam to work, God must be both Infinitely Merciful and Endlessly Just.
And so we see the journey so many Muslims of our times have taken, from ideologies and identities to the fatal exhaustion and inadequacy of the mind to determine things on its own. A spiritual revolution, often beginning in pain, the desolate pain of separation, failure, and defeat. That is my journey, too—one that’s taken me many years to even realize I was on, and for all its ecstasies and disappointments, it is a journey to faith that began with the loss of it.[We are grateful to the author, editors, and publishers of All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim for permission to reprint this excerpt. —The Eds.]