Q. I am a physician doing a fellowship in Pulmonary Critical Care Medicine. I was born and raised a Muslim, (originally from Pakistan but raised in Saudi Arabia). I was very religious, and I have spent a considerable amount of time learning the Qur’an, Hadith, and Islamic literature, and possess a good voice / Qirat. After moving to the US in 2012, I have slowly become skeptical of the whole concept of organized religion. I read in one of your articles, contrary to what I have been taught, that we do not have to believe that defy logic. I am beginning to find the whole concept of God, Prophecy, Angels, Revelation, and even the Qur’an defy logic. I am sure I am not the first person to feel this way, nor is this the first time I have felt like this. I find that many individuals I know are leaving Islam (some don't announce it due to the social consequences).
At the rate that this is happening, in the next 100 years or maybe a 1000 years, do you see Islam having a place in society? I know I won't live that long but now that I have kids, I don't want to 'equip' them with a religion that has no future. More importantly, does it have a future for me? I envy those who are able to believe in God while I struggle to make myself believe (again). I have seen beautiful consequences of practicing Islam (and there is a spectrum of ways in which people practice Islam). We all have also seen the ugly picture of people who do horrible things in the name of Islam. We all are on this earth for a short period of time. Islam helped me give meaning to life, discipline myself, be a good husband and son, and make sacrifices. I don't want to lose this and wish to pass it on to my children, but it is difficult when I have trouble believing in the core concept of God, like many Muslims who are leaving Islam and hence begging the question again, does Islam have a future?
A. Your questions are indeed all relevant to the modern world. And perhaps therein lies the problem for organized Abrahamic religions as traditonally understood. You are right about the numbers of people leaving religion which is why in the US, we now have the acronym "SBNR" – Spiritual But Not Religious, for those who want to seek God in their own way. And of course there is the atheist dimension. Let us take the latter category first. Intellectually, of course they do have a point: no argument can "prove" that God exists. And they may indeed be right: there may be no God. They may also be wrong: for what they are doing is creating a false dichotomy: the idea that if something is not proven, then its opposite must therefore be factual. Or as the Musilm theologians say: "adam al ilm laysa ilman bi'l adami" – absence of knowledge is not knowledge of absence. Not because we cannot prove something with rational or sensate evidence means that it does not exist. As such, with all objectivity, one can say that since religion relies upon FAITH rather than rational knowledge, we are essentially engaging in Pascal's Wager.
What does religion do? Well, as you pointed out, it sets values, ethical and moral. But some of the values of traditional religion are no longer applicable since the scriptures were set in a particular time and place, and unless time has stood still or all cultures are identical, then religion must change. This is, for example, why Fazlur Rahman used the double movement theory: understand verses for their time and purpose, and seek to apply the philosophy in a modern context. If for example, women wore a particular dress to indicate that they did not want to be seen as those whom men could molest, in today's world, do we still need that particular dress, or does the concept of law and human rights in a more civilized setting fulfill that goal?
Another concept is that religion is based on myth. Here myth does not mean a fabricated story, but rather one that we cannot disprove. Do we think Moses crossed the Red Sea when it suddenly parted? Or is the story a trope to instill in us the idea that good triumphs over evil? And the story is one that suited a particular time and place when learning was via such moda? That is one of the dominant theories. We ask ourselves: what about the rank and file in Pharoah's army – were they educated enough to know what they were doing? And if not, how dare God drown them? As Jacob Neusner, the recently deceased religion specialist noted, certain questions do violence to the traditions. Those are not questions that were meant to be asked, for the purpose of the scripture was to educate in a particular value. Did its people actually believe those things? We don't know because we were not there. It is possible they saw them as learning tools, with stories that allowed them to understand that the past was irretrievable, and that our forbears wanted us to learn certain values. And so the idea is that they kept those stories as learning tools. This is why in the Qur'an when Muhammad comes with his narratives, some people scoffed and declared: "Tales of the ancients." You will observe that the Qur’an – or Muhammad – does not try to convince them that the stories are actually true. That is the problem with many followers: they take religion to preach one thing, when it may be teaching something else.
In the end, whether you believe in God or not is up to you. As we noted, we cannot prove God, and you must be aware of the stories from the Qur’an about prophets like Abraham and Moses who had their own doubts and asked God for proof that He exists. But we hold that the values that religion teaches are good ones as long as we can distinguish between rituals, recommendations, etc., which can sometimes be difficult to discern.
Does Islam have a future? I recently wrote an article that is online, you may want to check it out: Islam and Genesis 17. I propose that the word "Islam" comes from God's order to Abraham to seek to be perfect, that is all. The idea about submission is a derived one. The actual word, since you say you speak Arabic, comes from salima, and as you know, in Arabic grammar, a perfect noun is called "ismun saalimun" – the description coming from that root, salima. For me, Islam is about being perfect within the limits of my human limitations. That will mean change. I don't observe the gender demarcations of the seventh century in which women stayed at home and men went to work, etc. But mutatis mutandis, I seek to follow a path that makes me a good citizen, honoring my ancestors by telling the stories they told to inculcate good values. If I choose to believe or not believe, that will not affect YOUR reality. That choice of believing must be yours. And whatever choice you make, it should not mean that you go about preaching against those who have a different viewpoint. Remember that the fight with the polytheists of the Prophet's time was not because of their disbelief, but rather because they took away the property of Muslims and tried to kill them, etc. There is no compulsion to believe or not believe. And as long as the issue is purely one of such, then good treatment and interaction must be observed regardless of faith or a lack thereof.
Posted November 10, 2018.