To say that I’m confused about religion would be an understatement. In just the past few years, I’ve gone from Muslim to agnostic to super-religious Muslim to now…when I don’t really know what I am. Sometimes I feel like I should just forget about God and make a shrine to John Green and worship him instead.
I grew up in Pakistan, where almost everyone is a Muslim. My parents are Muslims, as are most of my friends, neighbors, teachers, and relatives. I went to a secular school in Karachi, but some of my teachers frequently gave religious lectures, and we’d start each day by reciting verses from the Qur’an. I was raised Muslim too, and for most of my life I never questioned the existence of God. I had been taught to believe, and I did—until I was around 14.
That was when I started having doubts about God. Where did he come from? Why did he create this world? All faiths say they are the one true religion, so who’s right and who’s wrong? These questions bothered me more and more with each passing day.
At the same time, I was getting really into science, which teaches me not to accept anything as true without solid proof. I like graphs and statistics and test results—things that are objective and quantifiable. I want detailed reports published in reputable scientific journals. I want full disclosure. I’m a fan of the scientific method.
And you know what is probably the most unprovable thing in the whole world? The existence of God/Allah/a higher power. Faith in God is necessarily blind faith, which cannot be quantified, and my science-loving brain does not like that at all. Believing in something with no proof makes me feel like an idiot, a fool. I would never believe in paranormal activity or hypnosis, so why should God be any different?
By the time I turned 15, I had become a total agnostic. But this didn’t sit well with me, either. Agnosticism is at heart a belief in uncertainty, and I like being absolutely certain about what I believe. I found that when I didn’t believe in God, I didn’t believe in anything—I couldn’t make sense of the suffering that I saw around me, and I just felt scared about life. This led to a full-blown existentialist crisis: I thought the world was absurd and meaningless and that nothing was real and that maybe it would be best if everyone just died and the world ended.
At 17, desperate to re-establish some meaning in my life, I enrolled in some orthodox Islamic classes. Fundamentalist Islam is nothing if not certain, and this kind of absolute faith calmed me, for a time. During this period, I refused to talk to guys and threw away all my CDs (OK, I just packed them into boxes—let’s not get extreme!), because fundamentalists interpret the Qur’an as forbidding music as well as friendship between unrelated women and men (you’re not even supposed to make eye contact with the “opposite” sex). I followed all the rules zealously, thinking the more of them I abided by, the closer I’d get to God.
After a month of super-strict religious adherence, I started to hate God. I thought he was harsh and sexist and that his rules were ridiculous and arbitrary. I was miserable without my music and without any fun in my life (I had decided that fun was sinful too, and that God would punish me for having it). In my desperation to find God, I had embarked on a rigid path that made me feel less connected to him, and to myself.
Most devout Muslims consider it a fard, or obligation, for all women to wear some kind of headscarf, and I did try, during this period, to wear a hijab. Now, I think it’s important to point out that the hijab is not the tool of oppression that most non-Muslims think it is. A lot of moderate Muslims wear the hijab too, by choice, and many fundamentalist Muslims are total feminists—in fact, for some Muslim feminists wearing the veil is a feminist act.
By this point in my life I’d started identifying as a feminist, and I’d read so many stories by and about women who had found strength in the hijab. I was especially inspired by the example of Yvonne Ridley, a journalist who wrote about how wearing one liberated and empowered her by preventing people from judging her on her appearance. I thought it might free me, too.
I dug out one of my regular old scarves and asked a friend to show me how to fashion it into a veil. The moment I finished tying it around my head, I burst into tears. I felt hidden, confined, restricted. I cried again when my father laughed upon seeing me in my new garb. (My parents were, and still are, moderate Muslims. Moderates are guided by a more liberal interpretation of the Qur’an than fundamentalists are—they pray and fast but don’t believe that wearing the hijab or following extreme strictures like complete segregation of men and women is necessary.) I cried all the way to school, where everyone gawked when I walked in—the self-proclaimed agnostic who frequently called out sexism within Islam was now a hijabi? One of my friends even came up to me and told me to stop pretending. And the thing was, she was right. I was pretending. I had always hated it when Muslims said stuff like “a woman’s modesty is her beauty”—it feels like an attempt to control women, to keep us hidden and ashamed of our physical beings.
And that’s how I felt in my makeshift hijab—not liberated but constrained. It became yet another thing that made me feel distant from God, so I stopped wearing it after just five days.
I know a lot of Westerners see Islam as a misogynistic faith, and it can be, just like Christianity or Judaism or Mormonism or really any other organized structure in our patriarchal society. And, just like almost any major religion, Islam is often used to reinforce traditional gender roles—by, for example, putting men in positions of authority over women, teaching that men and women are fundamentally different, and/or telling women to be good wives and mothers, subservient to their husbands/fathers/male family members, so that God will be pleased with them. I can’t get with any organization that would limit a woman’s choices so narrowly. Sometimes I wonder if religion is just a tool that those in power have used over the centuries to oppress and pacify the masses.
On the other hand, it was Islam that gave women the right to work, own property, and divorce all the way back in the seventh century, hundreds of years before the West granted women such freedoms. Some of the best scholars in the early days of Islam were women, like the prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha. The problem is that too many of today’s Muslims dismiss the rights that were given to women from day one.
I’ve come to realize that the Qur’an is like poetry—its meaning changes depending on how it’s interpreted. Patriarchal readings of it will produce patriarchal results, and since I live in a patriarchal culture, those interpretations were mostly what I was exposed to growing up. But scholars like Amina Wadud, Khaled Abou El Fadl, and Leila Ahmed provide interpretations of the Qur’an that are liberal, progressive, and feminist. Their readings make sense to me—a God who created women can’t be sexist.
In the past few years I have had approximately 74,843,458,259 thoughts regarding Islam, God, feminism, and science. I’ve taken courses at Zaynab Academy and Al-Huda, two orthodox Islamic learning centers, and have read endless books of Islamic teachings. I’ve also researched most of the other big religions, but somehow I always return to Islam. That might be because I was raised Muslim, but it’s also the faith that feels best to me when I’m really being receptive to God. When I’m able to let go of my skepticism and believe in him, it is the most empowering, freeing experience ever. When I fast and pray in that state, I do so out of love for, not fear of, God, and prayer nourishes my soul in a way that I can’t rationally explain; I feel a strange joy that is both ecstatic and tranquil, and my heart feels at rest.
Today I find myself wavering between a more moderate version of Islam and agnosticism—between God and science. Despite all my natural skepticism, I yearn for God. I don’t want to be super-religious anymore, but I don’t want to be an atheist either. I just want to connect to a greater purpose.
I’ve found that almost everyone I know has been, at some point, troubled by the same religious doubts and confusion that I’m having. Most of my Muslim friends have doubted God at some point. Even my Islamic teachers, it turns out, aren’t always sure—they’ve just figured out how to deal with their uncertainty more effectively. One of my physics teachers told me that he prays just because he wants to be on the safe side, but that he isn’t positive that God exists.
And I’ve come to believe that Islam and science might actually be compatible. A lot of the early Muslims, like Averroes, Ibn Yunus, and Avicenna were pioneers in the fields of science and medicine. The Qur’an also touches on such topics as embryonic growth and planetary orbits, which suggests to me that even though science can’t prove that God exists, it can be used to explain his creation. I look at everything he made with amazement and awe—everything from a blade of grass to the northern lights inspires a reverential sense of wonder in me and makes me feel connected to a higher power. Science and religion share this sense of awe, and of reverence, for the universe.
I’m also getting more comfortable with the idea of believing in something without seeing proof. After all, everything that science has demonstrated to be true was once totally unproven, but that didn’t make it any less real. And there are a lot of things that science can’t explain, like the placebo effect and why we yawn, but science and religion combined can help provide a better understanding of this universe. I can believe in science and religion at the same time.
I think it might even be possible to balance those beliefs while maintaining every bit of my feminism. I’m hoping this won’t feel like a juggling act, but rather that those three threads can be woven together to make my connections to everything in the universe, and beyond it, that much stronger. When I attended lectures at orthodox Islamic centers, I was surprised by how many of the women there were doctors, and my teacher, a woman who wore the niqab, cited scientific research when explaining the reasons for certain rules in the Qur’an. These women are proof (ha) that I don’t have to stop believing in anything I don’t want to.
I haven’t gotten where I want to be yet. I still have doubts about the existence of God. And I still struggle with some of the more misogynistic strains of Islam. But I’m getting closer. I am still trying to find my way back to him. I know that I will not find him through logic, but by following my heart. I believe it will get me there. ♦