What I learned when I spoke to the people who chose to leave Islam

As a Muslim, I believe that we need to face up to the fact faith can become rigid and interfering. 

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Why did I come up with the idea to write about those who left Islam? It’s a good question.

Why would anyone who has worked for decades with Muslim communities in the UK, and spent six years of his life battling against anti-Muslim hatred (after setting up the national anti-Muslim monitoring and support service, Tell MAMA), want to write about something that would shake the status quo and challenge hard-built relationships?

Well, the answer is simple really. In 2014, I met Khaled, who was married and gay. Aside from gestures and affection for the children that had been brought into his fractured relationship, there was little care or love in it. Khaled practised unsafe sex and regularly felt guilt and fear about the need to have gay relationships. He tore himself apart as a form of penance for enjoying having sex with men. 

Khaled had to live a false life for the sake of his parents, his in-laws and his peer group. He was conforming to strict cultural norms rooted in 1960s Pakistan, even though he was living in the UK. It was a puritanical framework that created fear for people who were different.

On top of this, Khaled did not believe. He saw (and experienced) faith through the prism of pain, misery and enforcement. He is just one reason why I decided I wanted to highlight the deep personal reasons why people have chosen to walk away from Islam. Putting together the book was painful, since I regard myself as a Muslim. But the Islam that I see – of conformity, of rigidity and rituals – is far from the essence of why faith helps people.

Faith gives comfort, solace and reflection to many. But the Islam practised by many Muslims in the UK is not one of reflection, but of ritual without understanding. It is about punishment, pain and barriers, rather than enlightenment, openness and the nurturing of creative thought. The Wahabbist-Salafism that has so infected Islam over the last 100 years has done so because of petrodollars from Saudi Arabia’s coffers.

These petrodollars have stifled and throttled the natural development of Islam in modernity, choke-holding it and keeping it in the medieval period that Wahabbi-Salafists want as a means of control. For example, in 2007, Policy Exchange found extremist material in about a quarter of the hundred mosques they visited, with most of the material provided free from Saudi religious establishments. Ten years later, Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrats Foreign Affairs Spokesman wrote to the Prime Minister, warning: “It is no secret that Saudi Arabia in particular provides funding to hundreds of mosques in the UK, espousing a very hardline Wahhabist interpretation of Islam. It is often in these institutions that British extremism takes root.”

This rigidity reflects itself in various ways. I find Muslims half my age, angry and disaffected that the world hates them. I find Islamist groups in the UK that try and defend some of the more unsavoury and vile practices around elements like apostasy in Islam where punishment through with-holding access to children, inheritance rights and at the extreme end, the threat of execution,is a way to ‘redeem’ and ‘reclaim’ someone who just does not believe. I find Muslims in the UK unable to historically challenge child marriage and even re-affirming child marriage because it is somehow Islamic to betroth someone at childhood, as if we live in the 12th century.

Then, sadly, I also find the defensive brigade. These include those who push away difficult issues such as punishment for apostasy, the place of Jews, Christians and other faiths in Muslim majority countries and even the history of the Arabian peninsula before Islam. I simply don’t buy into the age of the “Jahaliyya” –that dismissal of the period of Arabian history before the advent of Islam as the “age of Ignorance”. Ask the vast majority of British Muslims what history and culture existed in that period, and they will be unable to describe any detail, apart from the fact that it was idolatrous, tribal and “ignorant” of the word of God. Indeed, much of the physical evidence of that history has been wantonly destroyed. This is isn’t religion – it’s religious propaganda.

So, I took the position that to challenge religious propaganda, we need to show real lives, real pain and real trauma that faith creates when it becomes rigid and interfering. With my co-editor, Aliyah Saleem, who was a practising Muslim and who left Islam, we put together the stories of people who cannot be easily dismissed. They are people who preached, practised and lived being Muslims. They memorised the Qu’ran and lived by its values and ideals. They spent years defending it. They have now left Islam for various reasons that the books highlights and yes, the stories will be like barbs for many Muslims, but that is not my intention.

Take for example, Hassan Radwan, who at the age of 19 embraced Islam and became a practising Muslim. Born to an Egyptian father and white English mother, he felt an identity crisis that Islam healed. He became president of his local university Islamic society in his youth, proselytised for Islam (Da’wah), and taught for 15 years in the Islamia school. He says that for the majority of the 30 years before he reached age of 50, Islam made him happy and gave him purpose. It became the most important thing in his life and he says that “even when he slept, he tried to face Mecca” in reverence to his faith.

It was however, the murderous terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 that made him start a period of reflection on his belief in Islam. “It was not just one thing that affected me and changed my belief in Islam,” he says. “It was many little things.”

He started to look at Islam through a slightly different lens, he says, which meant that it raised more and more questions about the faith within him. He describes it as being like “Pandora’s box” opening and it was impossible to stop the avalanche of questions that now worked their way through him. Questions about the marriage of Ayesha, a child bride, according to hadith sources (or records of Islamic tradition and prophetic sayings), to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, left Hassan troubled. “Muhammad and his actions cannot then be for all times and all places,” Hassan said in a recent interview.

Verse 34 of chapter 4 of the Qu’ran, a chapter entitled “Surah an-Nissa”, also troubled him. The chapter describes the role of women and their rights in Islam, and discusses admonishing and beating women if they were disloyal and disobedient. According to Hassan, “why would God, the Lord of the worlds who knows everything, put such a verse. Would a god, a wise all knowing supreme being, the most merciful, allow a man to hit his wife? Does that sound reasonable and I have to admit that it does not sound reasonable to me.”It is this struggle between the rational mind and blind religious obedience that led Hassan to lose his faith.

Or take the example of Jimmy Bangash, who wrote a chapter entitled, “Dorothy’s Hijab” in the book. The Islam within Jimmy’s family is one of blind obedience and shame. It controls what women wear and where the weight of maintaining “honour” for the family feels like a set of barbells around the necks of his sisters. As Jimmy puts it: “young (Muslim) girls are like silks and satins, hymens tightly wrapped and coiled around fabric bolts, stacked on high shelves, out of reach. Bold colours alluring and enticing, glistening and smooth to the touch. Fathers and brothers police their sheen. Seeking to extinguish the flame of sexuality that burns within them. Guarded by men for men, they are brought down to be fawned over when aunties are seeking brides for precious sons. Silently, they yearn to be unfurled, cut and set free.” Jimmy’s earliest experiences were seeing his sisters hopes, sexuality and desires cut short.

It is, however, the manifestly traumatising experience of growing up gay and Muslim, that drives Jimmy out of Islam. According to the Biblical story of Lot, which is referenced in the Qu’ran, homosexuality is referred to as a grave sin. Jimmy is conflicted with the very essence of who he is. Muslims carry out a cleansing ritual before prayer (Wudhu). For Jimmy, it is not a ritual of physical cleansing, but one where he desperately tries to wash away feelings of guilt, sin and shame related to his sexuality. The Wudhu becomes a fight for his soul. This moving statement sums up his feelings at the time. “For years I have prayed that these waters would wash away my homosexuality. Calling on the divine to purge me of this malady.”

My intention in writing this book was to initiate a better way of interpreting and living faith. I also wanted to show there is nothing to fear from people who leave Islam, but it is essential to listen and embrace their experiences. Only by embracing and valuing their experiences can we change and make faith valid in the 21st century. Only by truly listening to the heart of their messages, can we place humanity in its rightful place, at the core of Islam. 

In the end, Islam does not stand alone. To many Muslims, it may be the word of God, but in thinking this, they deny the fact that faith is a lived experience and the faith that they follow has been shaped by human lives who have gone before. Islam has also been shaped by those who leave it and this happened early on in the formation of an Islamic community in seventh century Arabia. To deny that, is to deny Islam’s history.

Of all the stories in the book, the one that sticks most in my mind is Jimmy trying to wash off his being gay. Just for a minute, ask yourselves this: would you want to see your child emotionally traumatised because he or she was gay and they were ritually trying to “wash away their sins” alone in a church or mosque? Is this what faith is about? I would argue the opposite.

Fiyaz Mughal is founder and director of Faith Matters and the founder of Tell MAMA, the national project monitoring and assisting victims of anti-Muslim hatred. His book, Leaving Faith Behind: The journeys and perspectives of people who have chosen to leave Islamco-edited with Aliyah Saleem, was published in March 2018. (Amazon link).