Two types of believer

August 19, 2009 at 12:26 am (God)

I’ve noticed that some people would not dare to question traditional or mainstream religious interpretations, believing that they are God’s way of telling us exactly what is acceptable to God. Their way to please God is to follow those interpretations as strictly as possible.

Others would not dare to give those interpretations an authority which is ultimately God’s. They find it to be almost a form of shirk (idolatry) to blindly rely on human transmission and understanding of God’s will. They would rather trust their reason and rely on their intentions in order to please God.

The difference is in how we think we can know God.

How does a person arrive at the first type of belief? By some sort of arbitrary subjective process, like an accident of birth, no? Or at best they can try to be objective and use reason to get there. But reason has more in common with the second type of belief. So at some point the reason has to stop and the blind acceptance has to begin. When, and why, should that happen?

And what happens if, once you stop using your reason, new rules are learnt and taken on board which actually would have been rejected if you were still using your reason? Isn’t that kind of dangerous?

Rules and rituals can be attractive, maybe because of the security and guidance they provide. But in the extreme they can be quite confining and unreasonable. But then the alternative – not having any certainty – can be too scary or difficult or impossible to contemplate.

If I’m pushed, I have to sit on the fence: I think traditional understandings of religion, combined with reason and faith, can be helpful to us. Faith is not certainty; it is not about blindly and uncritically accepting anything; there is no grounds for a pretence of certainty, in my view. I read recently that zeal is an expression of being troubled by doubt, and I wasn’t sure if I agreed, but in this context perhaps it is true.

Honestly, sometimes I would love to be the first type of believer, because it seems like plain sailing. I am troubled by doubt. I have tried to be that type of zealous believer and not been able to. I have flirted with the idea of trying again, and not been able to. And I worry that it is the only way to please God after all, because sometimes it seems that that’s what religions teach. And plus I’m so frickin’ lonely out here on the outside, seemingly losing readers because I am not able to be a zealous believer and people don’t like it.

Oh well, on with the struggle.



  1. susanne430 said,

    Aw, sweet Sarah, don’t worry about losing readers and such. I am sorry you are lonely. Likely those people are presently busy with Ramadan coming and such things. Do you do this blog for them? I think God brings people into contact with one another so He will bring friends and acquaintances (even blogging ones) into your life. Maybe now He wants you to write out your thoughts and “discuss” things with HIM, not a huge audience.

    I wouldn’t make a quick choice of religion simply for the sake of not alienating your readers. This is your faith, your relationship with GOD not humans. Granted, I understand your wanting people to interact and, hopefully, they will be back.

    Anyhow, I appreciate what you write. You give me a lot to consider and I hope you keep on writing out your thoughts. I want to go back and reread some of your old stuff as well. I see them on the sidebar and they look tempting. 🙂

    I enjoyed this post. You are a deep thinker!

  2. Sarah Elizabeth said,

    “Honestly, sometimes I would love to be the first type of believer, because it seems like plain sailing.”

    I understand this feeling you explain. i get caught in that trap sometimes also. Some of my in-laws are very strong in their rituals. I think to myself “if I could just be like that, everyone would accept me, Muslims everywhere would accept me.” If I could just be that person, sometimes I feel like life would be easy. But would it ? Sometimes I wish that being a conservative, pious Muslim was just naturally me, alas it is not.

    just this evening I was speaking to an in-law, and she was asking me to recite some of the Quran to her. of course I recited al fatihah. I then pressured her to read me a surah that is her favorite. She complied.. She said “sarah next time we talk I hope you can recite more.” And here is the dilemma.. I am not learning Arabic, nor do I think I ever will. I do not value recitation in Arabic as it is not realistic for me to learn. I have English translations, and I am more focused on learning my husbands native language so when we live in his country I will not be an outsider.

    This is a headache for me, how do I approach this situation? I mean, the truth is I am even to the point where I do not pray anymore. And besides the controversy, I have found my comfort zone. I know how I am going to be, I know who I am.. I will never speak of all of this with my in-laws, it just isn’t important for me to stir the pot, so to speak.

    I also demand my respect and what else can I do? Nothing. Accept or reject me, this is me regardless…

    You know that quote “it is better to be hated for who you are, then loved for who you are not.”

    I live by that quote. And yet, sometimes, when in a room full of women I have nothing in common with, I find myself wanting that comfort of being like everyone also.. But then I wouldn’t be me…

  3. Candice said,

    I definitely fall into the second category. When people are discussing some topics, I often find myself saying that I respect that they stay on the “safe side” with doing something that may or may not be obligatory or even Islamic, but that I’m more afraid of attributing this “rule” to God and committing shirk than I am of not doing it. A lot of times it’s something to do with hadiths that is not in the Qur’an. About these things, I feel that it’s our choice to do what is best, and that the hadith might give us the best option, but that it is not the only option. And in some cases, I feel like it’s not a real hadith at all. And even in the Qur’an, sometimes it is clear exactly which specific thing is allowed and which is prohibited. I think that we need to use our judgement for that and that it was written in a more vague way for the Qur’an to be able to adapt to the times. For example, the one school of thought that believes the niqab is obligatory takes the word “jilbab” to mean an outergarment that covers everything except the eyes. I think that the word meaning “outergarment” isn’t specific about the face being covered and so I would never believe that to be obligatory.

    About losing readers, I don’t think you really are! It is a busy time with Ramadan coming, and here there’s school starting really soon. And I know for me at least, work is so busy, and whether it’s only because of that or people are posting more as well, I am really late on my blog reading! I still have like 5 of your latest posts left to read and I have to go to bed already!

  4. Aynur said,

    Why do you think you’re losing readers? Maybe people just are too tired/busy to comment, even if they’re reading. 🙂

    I’m the same as Sarah Elizabeth. Some of my in-laws are the same way too … especially my MIL (I mention her a lot in my postings, because I see her the most out of all of them) … I constantly see her reciting/reading the Qur’an, but in Arabic – even though she doesn’t understand it. While I think that’s great for her, now that I’ve been actually thinking about things instead of just accepting without thinking – it seems more important for me to be reading a translation (or several different ones) to try to understand the Qur’an.
    I will also never talk about this with her, or even really touch on it with my husband. Even what I believe at this point is considered outside many mainstream beliefs.
    But do I understand what my beliefs are? Yes, and I know it’s a lifetime worth of learning I still have to do. 🙂

    Like Susanne said, this is your relationship with God – not others. 🙂

  5. ellen557 said,

    Don’t let yourself be pushed ^_^ this is your own journey, it just gets more confusing when someone else joins in. M was asking me today about my religious beliefs, because he realised that I’ve been confused for a year and a half. As soon as he was asking I instantly felt pressured and such – so just keep this journey for yourself because it’s your religion (I so want to put that in italics!).

    I personally think that doubt is very healthy in terms of religious beliefs. If we didn’t doubt, we wouldn’t bother to research anything. We would accept everything at face value. So thank God for those who doubted enough to show us that Islam values women or that Christianity was not always St Paul’s words (that’s addressing my own personal problems that I’ve had but there are many more).

    Rituals can certainly help us but it all depends on what kind of worship you’re comfortable with. Islamically speaking, sure it’s a very ritualistic religion – but you can pray 5x a day and still manage to have a very unique style of worship. As long as you fit the essentials (like fundamental beliefs in Christianity and fundamental practices in Islam) then elaborate all you like.

    And don’t feel lonely… I rely on you to make me realise that it’s not just me struggling through my core just to figure out what religion I want to be a part of!
    How are you going with Ramadan, by the way? Have you decided what you’re going to do with it? Only asking because sometimes fasting creates a small community (there will be a big one centered around it on blogger I’m sure) so it’s nice to participate in it if you’re feeling a bit out of it all.

  6. Sarah said,

    I’m a bit embarrassed by my late-night melancholy now! It is probably just a quiet period…

    Susanne: thanks for your kind words! I do value the contacts I’ve made here very much, and having a modest readership is a blessing. I’ve never been able to be one of the “in crowd” without compromising something of myself, and you’re right, I shouldn’t be tempted to do that.

    Sarah Elizabeth: I also relate to what you’ve said very much. I feel for you because it seems that religious people are often more judgmental towards each other than they are towards non-believers. This was my experience in the past, and I didn’t like it. If you were a non-believer no-one would be pressuring you to do anything. But you are right, you have to be yourself. I respect you so much for finding your own comfort zone. Those who want you to “belong” are probably mostly just bending to peer pressure themselves.

    Candice: thanks for sharing your view. You’re right, in Islam it sort of boils down to how you view the hadiths… whether you believe God wants you to accept them as authority beside the Quran, or to use the Quran and evaluate hadiths with your own reason more. I like what you said about the Quran being vague to adapt to changing times… I think that has to be the case if it’s a universal text.

    Aynur: I feel for you as well with your domineering mother-in-law! I hope things in your family are going OK at the moment. I can understand not even sharing all your thoughts with your husband about religion – it’s the same with mine, because we think on different levels. I’ve done all this research for a start, whereas he never reads. 😉

    Ellen: It really does get more confusing! But it takes as long as it takes. I’ve been thinking very hard about religion for a year, but confused for a lot longer than that.
    “If we didn’t doubt, we wouldn’t bother to research anything” – when you put it like that, it makes total sense!
    I’m glad my writing makes you feel less alone. Right back at ya.
    Ramadan… hmm… I don’t know any practicing females around here to join up with. My hubby sometimes meets up with other guys for iftar, but thankfully he’s said he won’t this year so at least I’ll have him around. But he is going to his home country half-way through Ramadan, so then I’ll be alone. I could have gone too but I was worried I would embarrass myself there if I found Ramadan hard. Maybe I will see if the university Islamic Society is organising get-togethers. And work up the courage to go along, lol.
    I’m looking forward to it anyway.

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

    I think it’s definitely a quiet period right now!

    “I think traditional understandings of religion, combined with reason and faith, can be helpful to us.” AMEN!

    A lot of people who stick to traditional, literal interpretations of religion are scared of doing something that might be wrong. Being different than the majority is always a risk.

    And I think there will always be doubt in religion. I don’t doubt whether God exists or whether the Qur’an is holy, but I do doubt about other things, such as the veil, segregation, etc.

  8. Sarah said,

    Sara – thanks for agreeing! Yes, fear of getting things wrong is probably behind a lot of the literal traditionalism. And I can understand trusting learned scholars to have got it right over trusting oneself. But they were just human too, so to assume it was all 100% right seems unjustified. I think we have to question everything.

  9. robert_9112 said,

    Good read ladies, i like all the points very interesting. Very true about once your part of a religion you are examined to and judged alot more than if you arnt a believer. I remember the first time i wore 3/4 length shorts and a vest to pray at a mosque – oh dear- i said im covering navel to knee whats the problem…… a long story there lol

  10. Sarah said,

    Robert – it kind of amused me to hear about a MAN being told off for not being covered enough! Sorry though…

  11. Bahlool said,

    I am not sure what madhab you follow but i as a shiamuslim have this view:
    There are things that all do alike and belive in, which we call usool al deen, the fundement or basics of islam, like the tawheed of Allah, the belief in the prophet, the belief in the imam. Then we have furoo al deen, those are issues that are to be reexamined from time to time, and for that we have ayatollahs/marjas who have studied the islamic laws and do ijtihad.
    Its easy to fall in the trap to change religion to suit yourself, but islam is a bit too dogmatic to allow that. Some issues, you have to use your brains, your logic, but this ijtihad is used by those who are knowledgble in the Quran, hadith and so forth.

    I myself left islam two times, and every time i came back with more strength. Some issues i disslike, but i still follow them cause there is logic in them.
    I think partly of the problem you have is due to the fact that you might not have had enough “help”.
    You have to realise that its a relationship between you and Allah, but Allah has given us certain rules and obligations to follow, and to do as we like would only go wrong (such people we have seen since the establishment of the khawarij 1400 years ago)

  12. Sarah said,

    Bahlool – I am far from following any madhab. My first approach is to read the Quran and see if it is what it says it is. It exhorts us to use our reason, and it claims that truth stands out clearly from error. I find that beautiful and powerfully appealing, more so than any traditionalist dogma.
    Of course there are rules and obligations, and we can’t just do as we like, because often we like something that’s bad for us, and dislike something that’s good for us. But that doesn’t mean the rules cannot be understood, or that we have to accept blindly what other people tell us the rules are.

  13. Bilquis said,

    God brought me to your blog and I love it! I am reading bits everyday and commenting as I go along.

    I see parts of my struggle in yours. You are trying to come to Islam and I was trying to hold on to it. It was the most difficult time. In the end I think it will take you a long time but you will be satisfied. It is yoru journey and you take as long as it takes and just what it takes. Zeal often leads to quick burn-out.

    You have readers who care about you and how you are feeling and even if you lose those who are eager that you convert soon and become a traditionalist fast then believe me, you are better off without them!

  14. Sarah said,

    Bilquis – I’m glad my thoughts and experiences are resonating with you, and I appreciate all your comments although I cannot promise to find time to respond individually to each one!

    You are right, it takes a long time to be fully intellectually satisfied about one’s beliefs. Something not everyone does. Sometimes it’s about striking a balance between spiritual hunger (which means you want to embrace religion) and a desire for intellectual integrity. If a person has a need for intellectual integrity, then I don’t think any traditional or mainstream approach to religion is going to be “plain sailing”. It may work for a while but there will be hiccups, probably major ones. This is what happened to me and seemingly to you too.

    It is true that I am “trying to come to Islam” although I’ve never expressed it that way. I have a love-hate relationship with religion but I can’t contemplate being without it. It has taken me a long time to admit to myself that the Christian theology I grew up with doesn’t make as much sense to me as the simpler Islamic theology. I guess I’m not a person who is going to be brave enough or self-motivated enough to be religious outside of all religious traditions, but I certainly think there will plenty of people who will view me that way. I can’t be mainstream anything. I know that now.

    It’s good to meet people who understand.

  15. caraboska said,

    Sarah, I don’t know exactly how you were taught theology. It is quite possible you weren’t really, given the Pentecostal background you mentioned. It is also true that in the more rationalistic churches – e.g. the more conservative Presbyterians, Reformed, etc. – you won’t find all the answers either, because not everything can be solved intellectually. I personally found I was kind of on my own in this matter. But I was able to make sense of Christian theology in my own way – which actually turned out to be pretty orthodox (with a small o). And I absolutely 110% come down on the side of viewing the placement of tradition in such a position as the first category of people place it, as an act of shirk/idolatry. Nearly everyone who does it, does so because that’s what they grew up with. The few Roman Catholic converts I know all seem to have been moved by the beauty of the worship services at that church. So it is far from a rational thing.

    And I think a very solid Biblical case can be made for the idea that giving that high a place to tradition is not what God expects. That quite the contrary, He expects us to evaluate critically all input from teachers. Even the apostles. Paul said in his letter o the Galatians that if he were to ever come preaching another gospel than the one he had preached from the beginning, that no one should listen to him and that anyone who does this should by rights spend eternity in hell. So it is not the person who has authority, but rather the message.

    The Bible also teaches that possession of the Holy Spirit is ultimately the sole qualification needed to be able to make judgments concerning the veracity of what is being preached. It gives us sole final responsibility for the content of our faith. This can be found in the first letter of John. Sure, education, teaching is helpful in equipping the person of God for every good work. But it is not the be-all and end-all.

    Yes, it’s a lonely road to walk when you find that no religious organization is going to give you what you need, in the end. I’ve been walking it for years. I ended up with the Quakers – they at least place high emphasis on respect for the individual conscience – on not trying to play God with other people’s spiritual life. But I’m too orthodox for the more liberal among them, and too… ‘non-plain’ for the more conservative among them. And I hang with the Quakers precisely, among other things, because of their views on everyone jointly taking responsibility for the edification of the Meeting – so that the ‘pastoral Quakers’ appear to me to be an anomaly.

    But enough about the Quakers. The bottom line is that it really is possible to walk that road and remain a Christian. For me, there are a few very important questions that just aren’t answered by other religions. I would even say that, oddly, the only way to avoid the idolatry of one’s desire for reward or the avoidance of punishment, or the idolatry of one’s own works as contributing materially to one’s salvation, is to have a mechanism for removing reward and punishment from the equation – one that is just and recognizes that what goes around, comes around. The only question is how. And thus far, I have found only one answer to that question…

  16. Sarah said,


    Welcome to my blog, and thanks for commenting.

    I grew up in a more traditional church but the fundamentals of salvation were not preached as strongly there as they are in the pentecostal tradition, which I later got into. However there were youth group outings to more radical churches. So I guess I wasn’t formally taught theology, just assimilated it over the years.

    My aunt has been a Quaker for many years. I went along to a couple of meetings once, but I found the silence difficult to be honest! I definitely get along better in worship with some sort of guiding ritual. But they seemed like a really lovely bunch of people. My aunt seems to feel very at home there. I am glad you have found your own path and that it all makes sense to you.

  17. caraboska said,

    I ended up among the Quakers in part because I had been seeing a young gentleman who viewed silence as an indispensible condition for worship, and I began to think about where we could worship together. As it turned out, in my adopted country that means starting one’s own Meeting, because there are, to my knowledge, exactly two Polish Quakers here. And neither lives nearby.

    Somehow that never worked out, but I managed to become Quaker enough that it began to bother me that there was some kind of noise for the entire length of the service at my (at that time) nice Baptist church – where the services were easily 2 hours long. It was an evolutionary process – I didn’t just go cold turkey with unprogrammed worship.

    That having been said, I am still enough of a nice conservative Presbyterian girl that if i have to attend a place of programmed worship, then I go to church above all to hear the sermon – so I’ll pick the one with the best sermons 🙂

  18. Sarah said,

    I guess you can get used to different styles of worship. 😉

  19. caraboska said,

    Oh yeah. What’s really fun is going from Quaker Meeting to the most liturgical Protestant church in town, and then to observing prayer times during the day… And then having to explain all this to your beloved, who is a traditionalist member of said liturgical Protestant church…

  20. Achelois said,

    Ooh, I’m so eager to read your “looking back” post and see what type of believer you think you are now.

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