Between religions and terrified

June 23, 2009 at 12:07 am (personal, reflections on my journey)

Being “between religions” is sometimes a really scary place to be.

More than once now, I’ve started to trust Islam, started to open myself to it, only to find that anxiety hits me. I suppose I worry that everything I’ve liked and agreed with about the faith is a misunderstanding, and that really the message of the faith is something quite different, something I shouldn’t open myself to at all. I also get all caught up in the shoulds and shouldn’ts, the rules, and I struggle to see how I am going to accept it all, and even if I do find I can accept it, how I am going to manage to practise it.

Of course I had times of acute anxiety in my fundamentalist Christian phase too, when I doubted what I was following. I remember worrying intensely over things I read in the Bible that didn’t fit my understanding. Maybe I’m just naturally insecure and untrusting. Maybe faith is always going to pose some issues for me. The difference for me back then was that I was practising, so through prayer and worship I was sometimes able to lead myself by the hand back into a positive frame of mind – manipulate my own emotions to get to a more peaceful place. Right now I got nothin’.

The last time I got into a panic like this was towards the end of last year, after having taken a step towards Islam around September (Ramadan). It led to a few fairly negative, detached, skeptical posts about religion that are at the beginning of this blog.

All I can do is press on, trying to evaluate which religion(s) I think are right, how much of them I think is from God, and in what way it’s from God. I really don’t know at this point. With Islam, I was thinking that once I had read the Qur’an I would know one way or another. But now I think, what if I agree with some bits and not others? What if I feel the Qur’an is from God, but it turns out my understanding was wrong? What if I find I have to accept the authenticity of hadith that I don’t like, and how can I even find time to read all the hadith? How much do I have to read before I can be sure what I believe about the religion?

In Christianity I understood the idea of one’s testimony was very important – one’s personal reasons for believing. These were what kept you going through times of doubt. They were generally personal and experiential, usually memories of religious experiences of some kind. They were not necessarily rational. Maybe rationality can only go so far in these matters, but I’m bent on taking it to its limits. The problem is that my search to think it all through and take nothing on trust demands a lot of time. It is also driven by fear, and fear is the opposite of faith.

I am just not confident enough in what limited set of beliefs I actually have at this point, to be able to take on the enormity of a religion, and all its derived laws and rulings, and wrestle with it in confident curiosity. I am overpowered by it; I don’t feel I can partially surrender to it on the basis of some low-level agreement with it, while simply begging to differ or suspending judgment on the rest. It’s all or nothing for me because I’m not strong enough to hold my own in the grey area in which I currently reside. This has been my problem all along with religion.

So my fear is about the destabilising effect of trusting something and then realising I shouldn’t; or, worse, trusting something and not realising I shouldn’t.

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27 Comments

  1. Candice said,

    I think that it is kind of normal for you to feel the way you do about the Qur’an. I also thought reading it would just be a click on or off Islam but I found that it wasn’t really. It’s a translation that I’m able to read (probably the same with you!) and so it’s difficult to know what the actual meaning is… Sometimes you can get something totally different by reading and understanding it yourself, but it’s hard to do with something that is not in your language. What I love though is that it’s still in its original form, unlike the Bible, so there’s the possibility of going to the source and analysing it. I know you’ve visited some Qur’an Only sites like Submission… Have you been on Free Minds forum? I found a lot of interesting things there… I notice that some of the people who post there regularly have this way of interpretting the Qur’an that is based a lot on the root of the word. They were able to explain the verse that allows men to beat their wives in a completely different way. But they continue with this approach on many topics like Ramadan, where the root of the word means something like “scorching heat”. The Qur’an says to fast a few days (not the entire month) in ramadan so they interpret it to mean that they should fast between 3-10 days during the hottest lunar month of the year, and not necessarily consecutively. They don’t all believe this, but it is a view on there.. I think it’s all really interesting!

    • Sarah said,

      Candice: I haven’t even finished reading the Qur’an yet – nowhere near, in fact! I’m just worrying that looking only at the Qur’an gives a false picture of the religion. It’s taking me a while anyway because I have Muhammad Asad’s translation, which has very comprehensive notes based on 17 years of studying classical scholarly works. He is a convert, he also lived with a Bedouin tribe for several years, whose language is the most similar to Qur’anic Arabic, which helped him understand it in a more natural way. I’d recommend it!

      That’s interesting about fasting. I’ve never heard that interpretation before. I suppose with all these different interpretations I’m finding it hard to know what I would believe, if I believed any of it.

      • Aynur said,

        I don’t think that just looking at the Qur’an will give you a false picture, as that is supposed to be the highest authority in our religion. If it’s giving a false picture, then something else *besides* the Qur’an is wrong.

        • Sarah said,

          Aynur: I like to think that’s right. It certainly was revered as the word of God and committed to memory by the early Muslims, while the hadith were not.

    • Jackson said,

      I feel your pain

  2. Krystal said,

    The husbands beat their wives,and the Qur’an has a verse that permits it ?I for one as a Christian woman will not allow myself to be beaten by my husband if and when I get married.

  3. Ellen (ellen557) said,

    Currently going through one at the moment.
    Mine would present itself while I tried to pray: every time I would get near the part where you say the Shahada, my heart would be beating so fast that I felt like it was coming up into my mouth. I still feel like that but to a lesser extent, because I have kept praying and kept saying it so I think my mind/body is getting used to it.

    I hate being in between things. I can’t ignore Islam, now that I’ve gone so far with it, but I can’t ignore the religion that forms the framework of the society that I live in.
    It’s really hard. I would recommend not just reading the Qur’an but reading other Islamic books based on spirituality. I have decided to do that before trying to complete the Qur’an (a task which seems to scare me for some reason). I found one today in a bookstore about the heart and the mind in Islam or something, if I can remember the title I’ll let you know. It’s nice to start off slow instead of pressuring yourself. I, too, haven’t read the whole Qur’an yet! That’s mostly out of fear, because I actually don’t like some of the things I’ve read. However, each verse has to be dissected in order to be understood, so I’ve found that knowing the history of verses helps.

    Maybe a nice book of duas would be good for you right now? ❤

  4. Ellen (ellen557) said,

    P.S. please read this blog (http://confusionaboutfaith.blogspot.com/) if you haven’t already, she has some posts that talk about what you’re going through right now.

    • Sarah said,

      Ellen: maybe this is just what happens to some of us when we move away from what we were brought up with. It feels like it shouldn’t be that way, though. That I should feel more certainty than this.

      I have a few books about the spiritual aspects of the Qur’an which were recommended at the Sufi workshop I went to a while back. I hope to read those soon too.

      We shouldn’t be afraid of finding things we don’t like in the Qur’an. It’s an opportunity to think and learn. Again, I recommend the Asad translation because of all the explanatory notes, I don’t know if you have it?

      I think I have to accept that I can’t rush it, I have to just deal with this indecision for a while longer. Maybe I should take a break from it when I start to freak out and obsess over it. Maybe it’s a matter of trusting myself to find the way in time.

      I was excited to come across Faith Confusion/Faith in Writing’s blog some time ago and have left a few comments.

  5. Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

    Maybe you’re looking at religion and Islam from a purely logical and scientific point of view, something I did for the longest time. What made me ready to accept Islam was a purely emotional reaction. One day I just FELT like I wanted to learn how to pray. A friend taught me and I’ve never looked back. Without this feeling, I wouldn’t have had the strength to come as far as I have, and to look for different meanings to Qur’anic verses/hadith I don’t feel comfortable with. The polygamy thing bothered me for agees and still does, but now that I’ve studied and read more, I realize that there are a multitude of explanations and interpretations. Unfortunately most Muslims today seem to like to choose the strictest most extreme explanations, but don’t let this put you off Islam.

    Anyway my point is, wait for that feeling. Islam isn’t just about thinking “I want to be a Muslim”. It’s about feeling you want to be a Muslim. This feeling is what will make you embrace Islam completely, and give you the strength and will to understand and accept things you aren’t okay with now. Also, knowing that God loves you means that you don’t have to worry about making mistakes, as long as your intentions are good. Hmm I think I’m going off-topic, lol, so I’ll stop now before I begin some kind of sermon 😀

    • Sarah said,

      Thanks Sara, for sharing that. I suppose the feeling you’re describing is a sort of “religious experience” that gives you reason to trust the religion you’ve chosen even when there are things you don’t understand. This is definitely the missing element for me. It’s so interesting that you describe it as well in terms of “knowing that God loves you”.

      I think the logic part is so important as well, and so I shall press on with my learning and thinking, and try not to worry about believing the wrong thing. We can only do our best!

  6. Sarah Elizabeth said,

    Assalamu Alaikum sis 🙂

    Just wanted to let you know I have added you to my blogroll, and really feel a connection with what you are going through..

    I am already a Muslim convert, and I am at the point in my life where I am trying to meld who I am with being Muslim.. It is a process, that is for sure, trying not to lose myself one way or another, and always always seeking more knowledge. My seeking comes in the form of books upon books and good people who are willing to share their own experiences

    Anyway, great blog! I feel I have found a kindred spirit, many of your stories sound like my own 🙂

    Keep studying, and you will find what you seek. Good Luck!

    • Sarah said,

      Sarah Elizabeth, wa alaikum salam! Thanks for commenting, and thus allowing me to find your blog too 😉

      It’s great to “meet” people who know what I’m talking about.

      I guess it’s a process that doesn’t end upon conversion, although sometimes I naively imagine it might. I do think once I find an approach to religion/spirituality that I’m comfortable with, I will feel better. But then the real journey starts!

  7. faith in writing said,

    I go through this ALL THE TIME!! I think when you have the ability to reason well it is natural to want more and more security in the decisions you are making. It actually astounds me that people can make these decisions about faith and then stick to them for the rest of their lives. I make all sorts of announcements on my blog. First I was unsure of my religion and my blog was called Confusion about Faith, then I had some kind of lightning strike and I decided once and for all that I was Christian, so I changed the name of my blog to Faith in Writing. THEN, a really full on Christian girl put me off Christianity again and I found myself enjoying Islamic marriage advice and then I decided i was Muslim again (I converted a couple of yrs ago when I got married, because I thought it was for me then).
    Now , I don’t even know. I want to label my religion but I don’t think I ever will. I think I’ll just keep taking info from here and there when it suits me. The biggest thing I struggle with is the shoulds and shouldn’ts and all the rules. And if I start practicing say Islam and I’m not followinf all the rules I think well why call myself a Muslim then? And if I have gay friends and I think they deserve rights, why call myself Muslim then, because homosexuality is frowned upon. But then, I want to set a good example for my baby girl who will grow up Muslim like her father, and that causes me to become more stressed. I just hope my confusion doesn’t put her off.
    I do have a really strong belief in God, and I think I’ll just have to leave it at that. I feel so fickle for changing my mind so often but at least I’m honest about my feelings. Glad I found your blog!! xx ps: love your name, it;s mine too.

    • Sarah said,

      Hi, faith in writing, thanks for visiting! I know you from Lisa’s blog and others, and I’m familiar with your blog altho I haven’t often commented. It’s always a pleasure to come across another in-betweener!
      I know what you mean about struggling with rules. But I think so much of it is a matter of interpretation, there is no definitive “right” or “wrong” way to do it, just opinions. I feel that the heart or spirit of a religion is the most important aspect. But I have difficulty assessing what that is, and strict rules-based approaches do put me off.
      Sometimes I want to “go it alone” and not belong to any religion, but I also want to belong, and want to practise something, and I don’t feel I can do that outside of religion. So for me it’s a long laborious process of working out how to make religion work for me. 🙂
      I hope we both manage to do that, since religion seems to be something we can’t fully let go of. I admire your open-mindedness… who knows where it will take you? 😉

  8. Sarah Elizabeth said,

    Faith in Writing, hun have no fear 🙂

    Basically ALL religions frown upon homosexuality, that doesn’t mean you have to in order to be Muslim.. Goodness, there are Gay Muslims out there also, ya know? 🙂

    You do not need to stop being a compassionate soul in order to be Muslim, no matter what anyone tells you.. Good for you for thinking deeply about it!!

    I think you should definitely reach out to Muslims who have your same mindset, and you will find there is a large community of liberal Muslims, including me! 🙂

  9. Jasmine said,

    I say relax and don’t worry too much – your subconsious is working all of the time and will ultimately make a decision for you at some stage. I say: enrich yourself with knowledge , and things will go smoothly thereafter if you only just relax a little. Faith is not something you get out of a workshop – i.e: you study for 5 days and come out with faith. Faith is who you are, what you do. That is your faith.

    Everything else is labels, decorations and catagories.

    Why we all need to label ourselves, give ourselves uniforms and practices I don’t know – because the only thing that will change the world for the better is what we do to eachother, what we say to eachother and how we behave toward eachother.

  10. Sarah said,

    Last night I had a dream in which I was travelling to my small home town on a bus. There were some evangelical Christians on the bus, one of whom I got talking to, a woman wearing some sort of head covering. She asked me about my faith, and I hesitated awkwardly, but told her I was Christian. I didn’t want to be preached to, so I made her think I was one of them. It was just like being in church again. I labelled myself to make life easier, but it was dishonest. I tried to hide my wedding ring incase she noticed and started asking and I would have to explain being married to a Muslim.
    The bus ride unusually took all day because of some problems with the roads, and we came into a village which I hoped was my destination, but it wasn’t, it was a village with lots of overhanging trees and a stream beside the road. It was somewhere in the wilds of Perthshire. The bus stopped for a break, and I got out and went for a wander. There were people sitting in their tranquil gardens sipping tea, at home, and I wanted to be like them. As I was walking it occurred to me that I am actually Muslim in my views, but that I haven’t acknowledged it. But that I could, and it would be correct. I got back onto the bus, all the while trying to hide my wedding ring and my modest garments from these prying Christians. I just wanted to arrive home; I had been on the journey for 11 hours and I never expected it to take so long.
    It’s just a dream of course, but I think it shows how conflicted I am about my spiritual views and how nervous I am about the influence of other people’s views. Labels and categories exist and I use these, or not, to make my life easier. Also the long journey thing might have been a symbol of my desire to arrive at a spiritual “home”.

  11. Bilquis said,

    I know exactly what you are talking about here!
    I felt just like this but when I was leaving Islam. I am 36 years old and spend the last 7-8 years in such dilemma. I continued to study Islam but when I questioned anything I was quickly told that I was inviting Satan to whisper to me. My family pointed out that I was a God-fearing person and was not doing anything wrong: I was worshipping one God – praying more in a day than a person from any other religion; I wasn’t cheating anyone, lying or stealing; wife beating, polygamy and oppression didn’t affect me.
    But inside I felt there was something seriously wrong with Islam. My heart didn’t accept it. There is so much emphasis on belief in one God and not relying on anyone; not even for intercession (the whole Satanic Verses episode was to show no one can intercede) and there I was supposedly worshipping one God five times a day but spending equal time if not more on blessing Muhammed. Adhan attests five times a day that Muhammed is a prophet of God and after every Adhan I made a dua blessing Muhammad and asking Allah to give him the best place in Heaven at a rank above everyone else and to allow him to intercede as Allah promised him. This is a dua allegedly taught by Muhammad to all his companions. Five times a day I prayed and in Tashahhud accepted Muhammed as a prophet and spent almost half of my prayer in blessing him and his family and ummah.
    But even when I stopped praying like a Muslim and began my journey to leave Islam slowly I was terrified. I kept questioning: what if I am wrong in thinking that Islam is not “the religion”? What if God does write books? What if He does want me to bless Muhammed and pronounce five times a day over and over again that he is a prophet and he should be blessed? What if God does love Muhammed the most and wants everyone to bless him? What if the cultural baggage and misogyny the way things have to be; that women are inferior and should be infantilized?
    For a long time I tried to accept everything until I was miserable and couldn’t take it anymore. I was there; between two religions. It was terrible.

  12. Achelois said,

    Very interesting! Hmm, never really thought about that. You know, as a UU I feel I have greater rights to accept and embrace all religions and I have always felt that way. I always felt that there was no one true religion so I feel like I was never between religion – I was in all of them 😀 It is a confusing place to be in, I must add, because I tried and still try to make sense of all of them and often find myself supporting religions that I most disagree with! I’m cuckoo like that 🙂

  13. Jackson said,

    Well, I am in this stage right now as a 9 year old and I have the most amazing anxiety. I actually freaked myself out by talking to my cousin and then I asked about demon possessions, he said they were real, and here I am now. So I’ve been searching the webs for an answer. And it’s not that I’m scared OF the demons, I’m scared of the fact knowing that there real.

    • Sarah said,

      There are some terrifying ideas out there being told as true, and it can be so hard when you don’t know what to make of them. It is definitely possible to feel you’ve figured it out though! Are you really only 9?

  14. Jackson said,

    Yes I am a very intelligent 9 year old. I don’t mean to boast, but it’s true. I was at my grandparents house for a week, and I just went home today. I ended up having a conversation with me seventeen year old cousin, who is a lot more religious than a gradually thought. And it was very late at night, so I was very freaked out. But I’m over it, and sometimes I have this thought that everyone I have ever met, everything they ever told me was a lie. The poor guy was so mad at himself, he cried this morning. Thanks.

    • Sarah said,

      I’m glad to hear you’re over it now. I think it’s good to be a bit skeptical of things people say – especially the scary stuff. We can sometimes find other explanations that make more sense and are less scary. You do sound very smart for a 9 year old!

  15. Jackson said,

    Well, thanks. And I’m glad I actually responded to this blog after 5 years!

  16. Jackson said,

    It was my birthday yesterday!

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