Losing my Religion (Part 1)
This post took me an inordinately long time to start. I went through all the usual tropes of starting an essay; the anecdote, the definition of a word that’s relevant to the topic; the click-bait-y statement. But at the end of the day there’s no easy way to say what I want to and I apologise in advance for the possible incoherence of this post.
But this needs to be put out there:
Let’s rewind to the 13th of November- the night of the tragic and game-changing Paris attacks. I was at a sports bar to watch the soccer match with some friends from work. The Germans and I were teasing the only Frenchman about how their national anthem was probably an ode to cheese and wine. He was retaliating by letting his team do the talking (Germany lost the game 2-0).
During the second half of the game the news slowly started filtering in. The sports channel was running a reel at the bottom. We had taken our phones out and were exchanging updates which were rapidly getting worse. I took over monitoring the BBC headlines, while another friend skimmed through Twitter and the others chose various channels. As the magnitude of the attack unfolded, we started texting and calling friends who had family in Paris. The disbelief and horror seeped through the mobile screens. The fact that we were only six hours away from Paris wasn’t lost on anyone present.
Throughout this time, my heart rate had been shooting up to the point where I developed a headache and could not stop my hands from shaking. I was sitting with my teeth clenched and my breath stuck somewhere in my throat, feeling sick and feverish. The most coherent thought in my head was – “Please don’t let this be any form of Islamic terrorism. Please don’t let this be related to Muslims. Please don’t make me have to defend myself and answer questions and feel guilty by proxy again.”
As we all know, that hope was in vain.
Questioning norms is something I excel at. If there is anything I am expected to do or say or live my life in accordance to, I will doubt it with the ferocity of your grandmother who thinks snapchat is the Antichrist.
It’s no surprise then, that after 3 years of studying in Europe and at an international university with a plethora of hippies around (Go, Mercator!), I had started to doubt the religion I grew up with. Questions about the veil, property laws, polygamy, stoning of adulterers, needing two female witnesses for every male witness and lack of female imams (prayer leaders) did not sit well with my ever burgeoning feminism. I doubted everything that was humanly possible to doubt. Was my religion really the right one? Was any religion really the right one? Do we need religion in our life at all? Why do all religions hate women? It goes on, and on, and on. You know the obnoxious, pseudo-intellectual friend you have, who is subscribed to Jezebel and tells you which memes are misogynistic? Hello and well met!
I’m sure we all know someone or the other who has distanced themselves from the faith they grew up with. In fact in Europe it seems to be pretty much the accepted norm. From not registering a religion to avoid paying church taxes, to not knowing where the local halal meat vendor is – most of the Europeans I’ve interacted with consider it perfectly acceptable to put religion away with other childish things.
But despite the support, despite the acceptance, despite even the indifference in general it was inordinately hard for me. While I could doubt religion all I wanted to – in my thought and with my words, I could not deny that some part of me flinched every time I did so. There was a niggling sense of the
My major breakthrough came this year when I went to Istanbul. I was really looking forward to praying at the Blue Mosque. With all the religious upheaval going through my mind and heart, I thought maybe praying at such a historical and significant mosque would bring me some peace. The
My blood boiled at that. I whirled around to locate this section and finally found a tiny corner separated by high wooden dividers next to where the shoes were kept. I went in there shaking with anger and almost in tears. Please note that before this the only other mosque I had prayed at was the Ka’aba in Mecca. Where I had performed my smaller pilgrimage right next to men! For whatever reason, it had totally slipped my mind that I would not be allowed to pray in the main part of the mosque but would be penned in a corner.
That day I made a conscious decision to read. I was tired of hearing about how Islam was the religion of equality and female rights and remembering half-forgotten lessons from school regarding how women in Arabia were treated like animals before the advent of Islam. If I was going to be treated like a second rate citizen in the 21st century I really could not care much about what Islam had done to improve the condition of women in the freaking dark ages! Until I saw proof, until I saw the verse, read the history, understood the meaning I was not going to take anyone’s word for anything.
That is when I purchased Reza Aslan’s “No god but God.”
I have to admit, this book has brought me more peace and more sadness than I have experienced in a while. For the first time in my life, the religion of my forefathers makes sense to me. Like any other religion in the world, Islam has evolved and been coloured by history, culture, politics and economics. When I look back at the past 25 years when reasons such as “we cannot understand the wisdom of God”, “the teachings are there for our protection”, “yes, but they’re not
The very first statement that hit close to my heart was to hear about the account of segregation of women in the mosques. Umar Farooq was the second Caliph of the Muslim Ummah after the death of the Prophet ﷺ 1 . He is widely renowned for his physical prowess and his intense devotion to Islam. When Muhammad ﷺ passed away he was distraught and refused to believe that news and threatened to physically beat anyone who repeated that “falsehood”. He was a brilliant strategist and leader and is widely regarded as having established the first Islamic economic system. On the other hand he was also a man with a quick temper and known to be easily violent towards women. So much so that when he asked for the hand of the Prophet’s (PBUH) sister-in-law, he was rebuffed. 2
During his rule, he went directly against the rules that the Muhammad ﷺ had established and banned women from the mosques. He went so far as to ban the Prophet’s ﷺ widows from performing the ritual pilgrimage. The infamous stoning to death as a punishment for adultery was also implemented during his rule. It is not condoned anywhere in the Quran and the only way he managed to get it across was by claiming that it had been part of the revelation but “accidentally” left out. 2
Yes, but what about the parts of the Quran that do have teachings that make no sense for a female friendly religion? What about where men are admonished to beat their wives when they disobey them?
Islam is nearly 1500 years old now. Nowhere near as old as Judaism or Hinduism but certainly having gone through 14 centuries of linguistic changes, one would expect the Quran to go the way of the Bible and the Torah and become predominantly available in English with the original language dying out. But that is not the case. For the past 14 centuries, Arabic has thrived and is a flourishing language spoken by millions. This means that the Quran is still primarily published in its archaic format. Compounded with the fact that the Quran is written in beautiful poetic lyrics, it has never been an easy book to interpret. And for the past 14 centuries the interpretation of the Quran has been the domain of men. Is it any surprise that the most misogynistic versions of the translations have survived? Consider the following examples that Aslan used to make his point:
The amazing thing? Both of those translations are literally, grammatically, syntactically correct. 3 Which version would you prefer? Which version do you think has been handed down from generation to generation, justifying violence?
I cannot overemphasise the importance of this point. Whenever we have an attack from the ISIS/Taliban/Al-Qaeda or whatever the flavour of the month for Islamic terrorism is, Muslims rise across the world proclaiming #NotInMyName. “This isn’t my religion! My religion promotes peace and love and brotherhood! Muslims are loving people who love baseball and love America just as much as you do! In fact we love it more!” When these Muslims are confronted with the Quranic texts being used by the group in question 4 , the main response you get in return is a red-faced mumbling about how “it’s being misinterpreted” and “the situation is different”. They are both wrong and right. The texts are not being misinterpreted so much as being interpreted in a negative manner. You know those optical illusions where one man will see an old woman and another will see a beautiful princess? The Quran is like that. The people want to find a justification for their actions and if there is one thing the human mind excels at, it is justifying its actions to itself. They want to find an excuse for their violence and bloodshed and bid for self-governance and so they find it in all the verses revealed during war-times. It’s so easy to ignore all the times Muslims have been told in the Quran to never attack but only defend and that whoever kills one person, it is as though they have killed all of humanity 5 . It is not only beauty that lies in the eye of the beholder – but the perception of the entire world.
But it is not just people now who have found religious justification for their actions. From the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition to the rise of the Ayatollah in Iran, religion has always been a convenient means of furthering a political agenda. There are people who have wanted control over the masses and have thus made themselves conduits of religion, discouraging any religious discourse amongst the common man. And then there are people who have apathetically let that happen. People like me, people like you who have never bothered to check the veracity of our beliefs and our traditions and our way of life. We are all to blame.
So this year, I reclaim my religion. I reclaim my right to question and judge and study and discover the truth. And I would urge all the Muslims around the world to start doing so and as urgently as possible. In this age of questions and challenges and scepticism regarding the relevance and humanity of Islam, do not stand on the side-lines. History is being made as we speak. Educate yourself, educate those around you, study your history, study all the sects you brand as “other”, and bring reform! Be the change you want to see in your religion! Because without change, without liberal study, without interpreting religious teachings for the modern world, Islam will remain stuck in the 7th century. And you will have no more right to claim that it’s misunderstood- especially when you yourself made no effort to understand it.
1 This is the Arabic for “peace be upon him”, an honorary term to be used after the name of the Prophet by Muslims.
2 pg.71 – “No god but God”, Reza Aslan
3 pg.70 – “No god but God”, Reza Aslan
4 Quran [09:05] http://www.usc.edu/org/cmje/religious-texts/quran/verses/009-qmt.php#009.005
5 Quran [05:32] http://quran.com/5/32