I am in two minds about posting on why I arrived at a lack of belief in Islam. I do want to record this for myself (that’s what my blog is for), and I think some people will want to read it. I am also still open to any answers Muslims might be able to give me, so that is another reason to write it on the blog. But I hesitate because I don’t want to destroy anyone’s faith. Maybe it’s big-headed of me to think my problems with Islam are big enough to impact on anyone’s faith, though; and people can decide for themselves whether to read it or not (I will not be offended if anyone decides not to). Another thing I am a bit worried about is the threats others have experienced when criticising Islam (admittedly they probably did so with less respect than I am going to do). I don’t know how worried I need to be but I’m going to do this in parts and see how it goes.
It was not one thing that broke the deal for me, it was a lot of little things that I was tying myself in knots trying to be OK with. I have been called a perfectionist, and often in life I give up with things because I cannot cope with imperfect situations. This is what has been happening lately with Islam and I recognised the familiar pattern. The discomfort and panicked wrestling has blunted my enthusiasm. My first thought was, I need to tolerate the uncertainty and the problematic elements, just like with other aspects of life – I can make it work for me. Nothing is perfect, even religion – we have to work with that and not just throw it out and start from scratch again.
With another religion that might be OK. But with Islam, it’s not OK to think the religion is imperfect. The Quran calls itself a book written by God, and so there’s really no room for thinking that it’s OK for some of it to be wrong.
I had already rejected the idea that it had to have been perfectly preserved. A year ago I read a book by scholar Farid Esack which spoke of “variant readings” of the Quran existing, and quoted historical figures from the first caliphates saying that no-one could be sure the whole of the Quran had been collected and none of it had been lost! I think what we do have of the Quran has been preserved pretty accurately and any variations were of limited impact. But because I couldn’t see God subjecting important detailed information to these flawed human transmission processes, I was of the opinion that the overall message is probably what matters – and is simple enough to have been well preserved – rather than any specific verses. So that’s not in itself an obstacle to faith in it.
But what is the overall message? It calls itself a reminder, which implies it doesn’t contain new information and need not be seen as a definitive guide for life. Indeed I don’t think it is. I saw it as more the product of a conversation between Muhammad and God in which he is instructed to warn and guide and remind people of God. As you read it, much of it is instructions or information regarding situations he was facing – how to deal with unbelievers, what to say to them, how to warn the hypocrites, and the Jews and Christians, how to argue for the existence of God and resurrection and judgment, how and when to fight, and to a certain extent what laws to put in place. It reads more as a book of guidance for Muhammad than a book of guidance for people everywhere. Of course there may be guidance in it that is relevant for people everywhere, but it is not structured as a life manual. There is no equivalent of the ten commandments, no place where it sets out exactly what moral conduct is. The other day I trawled through it looking for a verse to support the moral precept that lying is wrong, and it was harder to find than you would think for a divine “life manual”. Which can be OK – maybe that’s just not what it is, it’s just a reminder of the eternal principles of tawheed, delivered in the form of situational divine insights to Muhammad.
But it still has to be perfect. If any of these situational divine insights are flawed, then it throws the whole thing into doubt. Unless I am going to believe that Muhammad was divinely inspired some of the time, and mistaken some of the time – but by this point I would be so far from orthodoxy that there would be no point calling myself a Muslim. Or unless I can convince myself the questionable bits were inauthentic, like I do with the hadiths – but there is far less justification for that with the Quran, and it would also put me far out of the mainstream. So basically it has to be perfect. And this is why I have been putting myself through hell: worrying over so many things that don’t seem perfect, trying to hold on to Islam, making myself exhausted in the process.
I just want to say that although I don’t think God wrote the Quran, I do think there is truth in it, and goodness. I think Islam can be a path that leads people to God. I do think that goodness can grow even out of flawed origins. Islam has flourished and evolved as it’s become a world religion, and I know people do find meaning and truth and beauty in it; whether this is original or not perhaps doesn’t matter. I don’t know exactly what I think of Muhammad but I have never entertained the notion that he was a fraud, and I still can’t believe he was. I think he was sincere and I think the empire he started was, on balance, a force for good in the world. If I wasn’t such a perfectionist, I’m sure I could have converted.