Q. I’m a first-year university student and a born Muslim who struggled with the religion for most of my teenage years. This year I had a particularly difficult encounter in trying to “come back to my faith” after a traumatic event. I found several disturbing ideologies that fueled the anxiety and depression I’ve struggled with from an early age.

I’ve tried to access as much as information as I could to find answers before resorting to asking you. I found this new, marginalized vision and practice of Islam grounded in intellectualism and humanity on your website, alongside scholars like Dr. Khaled Abou El-Fadl, and it has helped me grow personally and in understanding of my religion.

My family and community follow this mainstream version of Islam that is constricted in rituals, prohibitions, and physical displays of “Muslimness” such as sitting down while eating, covering food to protect it from the effects of shaytan, and other such practices with aggressive policing. On a conscious level, several of the mainstream ideologies do not make sense to me and have really caused a lot of psychological damage (the tyrannical image of God, the policing of everything to permissible and not permissible, the detachment from the “worldly life”, this exclusivity and drive to “Islamize” all sorts of things, and unrealistic social codes of behavior).

When I find scholars and academics like you, I feel relieved and motivated to pursue humanitarian and ethical causes in hand with spirituality. But being surrounded by the authorities and societies that aggressively push alternative views makes me question if I’m doing the right thing at all. I get anxious that I’m finding loopholes or diluting the will of God to serve my fallible conscience. As I write this, I know well that Allah has given us our rationale, but a sort of cognitive dissonance has taken root after years and years of being taught that religion is faith and obedience, and questioning is the path to deviance.

I’m not as learned as the people who hand out hadith after tafsir based on consensus-based rulings to support certain views, but I have some faith in the direction I am walking towards. As someone who already suffers from mental health issues, the tyranny and constricting enforcement of the “pop Islam” I see through preachers and spokesmen for Islam causes me to plummet into uncontrollable states of anxiety and depression. After all, faith is foundational to the existential questions.

I hear people quote the hadith that says that the ummah will not agree on misguidance in order to shed views that do not fit the orthodoxy. I am writing this to ask you for words of advice as I walk this path towards finding the truth for myself. I’m really new to this, and I do not have the liberty to delve into Islamic scholarship. How do you suggest I unlearn the religion I was born into, and learn the Islam that strives for humanitarian excellence?

I want to know how to stand strong with my vision of God and His justice against the ones that are rigid and scary and unchanging, the kind that have scared us into intellectual stagnation. These voices have pervaded the most mundane areas of my life, and I don’t know how to undo their effects. I get stuck between the space of rejecting the dogmatism enforced upon me, but not being able to provide an alternative equally backed by Qur'anic verses and exegeses and ahadith and scholarly commentary. I can only rely on the new foundations of religious thought I have found through scholars like you. Yet, I live with a level of fear and uncertainty, because it is a lonely place to be, and I’m scared I will have to face God having rejected His authority and placing my own judgement over the one He ordained.

Please tell me if I have erred in any of my assumptions and pursuits thus far. I approach you because I have seen the sort of puritanical tirades you have responded to, and I am sure you have had to establish your conviction and perseverance against the masses that are aggressive in protecting their puritanism and persecuting anyone who questions it. I would appreciate if you can provide some insight into how you dealt with doubt, the pressure when facing the condition of the contemporary Muslim world, and the authoritative face of the orthodoxy that accuses difference with labels like heresy and blasphemy.

A. Thank you for a truly thought-provoking examination and question. While I certainly cannot speak for everyone in that boat that you describe, I daresay that my study of religion forces me to think that EVERY thinker has faced the same issue. In fact, it is one of the theories as to the formation of new religions, if we examine history carefully. We see that, as every religion movement crystallizes, it eventually evolves into an institution with practices, rituals, and other addenda that the original founder(s) may never have intended. It is at this stage that one has to realize that, whether we like it or not, people are of different types. Some of us are happy to go along with the institutional ideas because they provide guidance, answers, and freedom from having to think about the problems of life. The hadith, for many, as well as the exegesis of the Qur'an, fulfill these needs. And then there are those who, based on various factors, may question and deny every idea fostered by institutional religion. Between these two we find those who read, reflect, and wish to be good servants of God, but find a clash between their analysis of scripture, reality, and what the institutional teachings are. Such people never have it easy because at every step of the way, they will face hurdles.

You have pointed out the most frequent of those: parental opposition. Fortunately, the Qur'an provides us a way out of that: it tells us that we are supposed to show filial respect, even when they try to take us out of religion. Part of hikmah (wisdom) is realizing that sometimes it is useless to argue against ingrained teachings, and so for this reason, we sometimes have to know when to keep our philosophy to ourselves. But it also means being in command of the subject material at hand. An example is when one is encouraged to deny the salvation of non-Muslims. All one has to do is to ask, without rancor: "So what do you think of Qur'an 2:177 or 2:62?"

The Qur'an asks a very strong rhetorical question: "Are those who know equal to those who do not know?" Many of us take this to be license to argue if we have the requisite information to win in a confrontation. Sometimes, however, it means to adopt the philosophy of "To you be your religion and to me mine." No matter how much we are often tempted, the way to avoid animosity, while maintaining amity is to simply say: "I understand your position. If it works for you, then I am happy. I promise I will keep on thinking about it." Notice that you have not made the assertion of error, nor have you pushed the correctness of your position. Some may still push: "So now will you give up your position?" A good answer under the circumstances would be to rely upon the Qur'an once again, where it asks for proof, and respond that you still feel that your position is stronger, but you will do what is right and look into the matter more deeply.

You asked about my personal approach. I must admit that as I have aged, I have found it beneficial to be nonconfrontational. I rely heavily upon the supposed conduct of Aaron, in both the Shia/Sunni positions, as well as in the Jewish tradition. It is said he placed group cohesiveness and harmony above everything else, and acted in a way that promoted such. I find that on matters of theology, for example, it is useless to argue since these are based on speculation and have no clear answer in the Qur'an. I therefore let people speak, and maybe ask a few questions designed to make them look more deeply into themselves.

Every great thinker that I know of in the religion faced the situation that you outline. Al Ghazzali supposedly admitted to total confusion, and went into a period of self-evaluation before formulating some of his ideas. When it comes to the use of hadith, my way of dealing with it, even when it is nonsensical, is to accept that those hadith were formed at a certain time in history to answer to certain situations. This allows me to accept that people did what they felt was necessary, even though in doing so, they may have wrongly attributed such sayings to the Prophet. It is also why, whenever I am faced with hadith claimants, I ask them for the technical definition of the term, which is "That which is imputed to the Prophet in word, deed, or his tacit approval." I focus on the word "imputed" to let them know that it is only in modernity that we have such a reliance on hadith by non-scholars who can't seem to get that, even if a hadith is considered authentic, it may not be so in reality, and even if the Prophet did utter it, we have to be very careful of the circumstances under which it was said. And then we also have to realize that God has promised to protect the Qu'ran only.

I realize I have written much that may not directly address your concerns. This is because each one of us has to approach things differently. It is also one of the reasons that in Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama is reputed to have taught that each one experiences reality differently. The hadith about the umma not agreeing upon misguidance seems to be a sort of corollary of that teaching: we may differ and we will never agree on that which is totally incorrect. Sadly, because of what Muslim creed has become, the battle is not an easy one. For this reason, I find that Q2:177 is my shield of sorts. I seek to do (and exhort others) to practice that which brings cosmic justice and societal harmony rather than argue about ritual and theology. I hope this answer is of some help, albeit not much.

Posted November 15, 2020