Belief is not a choice

April 15, 2010 at 10:06 pm (gender issues, Islam, moral issues, personal, religious experiences)

I was sorting through our possessions and I came across a few photos that reminded me, in a very immediate, emotional way, of wanting to be a Muslim. Here is one of them; one which doesn’t identify the people. It is of one of my husband’s lifelong friends, with his Scottish convert wife and their newborn first child in a pushchair.

I don’t know if I can even explain what it makes me feel. It just looks like a family I would want to be in.

It’s probably partly the traditional gender roles that her dress implies. The idea of being protected and provided for, materially and/or in other ways. Also, it seems to invoke a mental picture of a secure family based on moral commitment and not selfish whim; maybe it is also a feeling of a shared spirituality and a common purpose. Much the same feeling that drew me to Christianity. It feels healthy and wholesome. Maybe it’s partly that I just fell in love with Islam because it is a part of my husband. All of this is totally subjective, of course, and may not reflect reality, but I so rarely write about how I feel or even remember the subjective emotional factors that led me into my journey, and it hit me when I looked at the photos.

Sometimes you have conflicting wants. I wanted religiosity but I also wanted freedom of thought. I wanted peace of mind but I didn’t want simplistic answers. I wanted belonging but I also wanted personal integrity and an honest search for truth. In the end I had to realise that – at least for me – these wants are not compatible, and by the time you realise that, there is no longer any honest choice to be made. I hope the clarity and the relief of dropping the need for certainty will be worth the consequences, but even if it isn’t, it couldn’t have been any other way. You can’t choose to believe something you don’t believe.

I turn on the TV and I see a 13-year-old girl in A&E (or the ER) with severe alcohol poisoning, constantly throwing up. And for a moment, I wonder if I could happily raise Muslim children after all. But then I think of how I couldn’t even perform the pillars without cognitive dissonance over rules that didn’t make sense, how I could never honestly tell my family to hide the ham because we’re coming over or to hold the presents until Christmas is well over, how I could never feel any shame if a man saw my hair, and how frightened I would be that my children might learn to hate those who are not like them.

You can’t choose to believe in something you don’t believe in.



  1. LK said,

    beautiful post. Really, I hope that your journey continues toward good things 🙂 You really can’t believe something you don’t believe in, I know that is for sure.

  2. susanne430 said,

    This is such a sweet post. I could feel so many emotions as I read it. You are in my thoughts and prayers during this difficult time. I pray for God to do something wonderful in your life and let you know you are loved and cared for. Thanks for sharing such honest thoughts with us.

    • Dawn said,

      I found your blog about a month ago, and much of it has been like reading the thoughts someone has pulled out of my head. I would have kept on simply reading, but your fourth paragraph (Sometimes you have conflicting wants …) was so entirely spot on, that I wanted to post a comment. You seemed to have been able to reach that point much faster than I was able to, for which I totally commend you!!! I took me years to finally get that far. Your write “I hope the clarity and the relief of dropping the need for certainty will be worth the consequences”, to which I can only add my experience, which would say, it will be, but only with time. It has been a good six years since I was finally able to “drop the need for certainty”. But it has only been the last year or two where I have finally been able to look back at that and say that it was a good thing, and not something I had to do, but regretted doing nonetheless. (On the other hand, it took a good twelve years to even get to the first milestone, so I probably just work a bit slowly.) No, you can’t force yourself to believe something. Goodness knows, I tried. I am so glad that you seem to have found a space for yourself with UU, at least for now. I wish there was a UU congregation around here, but no such luck. Continental Europe doesn’t seem to be a UU stronghold. 😉

      Anyway, lovely post on a truly wonderful blog! Thank you for sharing yourself and your journey!

      • Dawn said,

        Oops, sorry! That response was not meant to be a reply to Susanne’s comment, but to the main post. I clearly clicked the wrong reply button!

      • Sarah said,

        Thanks for your comment, Dawn. It’s always really good to hear that someone else can relate to my thoughts and experiences.

        I’m sure I would have lasted longer with religion if I hadn’t had some tough experiences which got me questioning. I trusted religion and religious people too much, and I suffered for that, and I don’t feel that it helped me at all to believe that God was engineering the whole situation. I would still believe if I could, regardless of the pain, but in all honesty all I can be is unsure. Most of the time I am OK with that. It frightens me to think how full of pain life can be and that maybe there is no reason for it, maybe there aren’t any reassurances that life is good overall. But I am inspired by how well people deal with suffering, sometimes people even seem to thrive on a bit of hardship, and so maybe that is what will give me hope. Maybe that’s enough.

        It’s a shame there aren’t any Unitarians where you are, but there are some great resources on the web that you could use. I found a couple of UU forums which I will join if I ever find the time!

        Keep in touch!

    • Sarah said,

      Thanks Susanne for your sweet words. It really helps.
      You’re right, there are a lot of emotions in this post!

  3. aynur said,

    Yes – I can relate to how you feel myself.

    “Maybe it’s partly that I just fell in love with Islam because it is a part of my husband.”

    That’s how it is for me too.

    • Sarah said,

      Interesting, Aynur. It’s amazing how connected religion and relationships can be. It’s a repeating pattern for me. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. caraboska said,

    Traditional sex roles? There is a very dark side to that – one that is apparently inconsistent with the other things you want out of life. And the thing about tradition is that it is a package deal. You take the whole package, or it ain’t traditional anymore. To put it another way, saying that one wants to be protected and provided for amounts to saying that one does not want to take full responsibility for one’s own life. Is that really what you want?

    That having been said, you do not have to have traditional sex roles to have moral commitment, shared spirituality and a common purpose. You can have something healthy and wholesome. You can have both religiosity and freedom of thought. You can have peace of mind without simplistic answers. You can even have personal integrity and an honest search for truth.

    The price you pay for that, however, is in belonging. If you take all of that, you will no longer fit into the traditional mold and it will be much more difficult to find like-minded people. If you take it really far, you can end up in almost complete isolation, with no one but God to travel with. For some people, integrity demands that they walk that path, and the agony only goes away when they accept this.

    The alternative is a life of doing violence to oneself in an effort to ‘belong’. Which cannot work on any long-term basis. It will just leave you exhausted and perhaps even with a life-threatening illness. That’s what it took me to begin to find a solution to this problem.

    ‘You can’t choose to believe in something you don’t believe in.’ This is in some way half true. I did not believe in God when I walked into that youth group meeting all those years ago, but I did when I walked out. The fact of the matter is that we do choose what we believe in. But that having been said, there is no compulsion in religion. It has to come out of your relationship with God and from no other source – whatever you do has to be done for God and God alone.

    • Sarah said,

      Caraboska, I guess I have a love-hate relationship with tradition. I guess everyone needs to be at least a bit independent, unless you live in a culture where women can always rely on their relatives for support (material, emotional, practical etc) if they are widowed or divorced. Otherwise, you can’t rely completely on a man because there is no guarantee.

      I think that I have sacrificed one type of belonging for another type of belonging. In the Unitarians there is minimal conformity, but there is still belonging. It is about looking beyond conformity to beliefs and rules – the only conformity is to values and that suits me very well. Each to their own!

      • caraboska said,

        I think that independence is necessary regardless because otherwise we fall into an idolatry of human support and human provision.

        That shared values thing is probably what holds Quakers together as well. I begin to think that if M and I are going to be together at all, it will be on the basis of shared values, as opposed to shared beliefs. The question is: will it be enough? I see a glimmer of hope that maybe just maybe…

        Have you found any common values at all with hubby?

        • Sarah said,

          Yes, we have many common values. I’m sure that would be enough if it weren’t for one core value that differs – I believe in freedom to use reason, and he believes in clinging to a “guide” or “path”. This means our approach to children would be quite different and neither of us would feel happy about how the other would do things.

          If we weren’t going to have children I don’t think there would be any major problems. I think it’s very easy for two adults to happily co-exist even with different approaches to life. Especially if you are independent enough to do your own thing. It’s even enriching.

  5. Sarah said,

    I agree with Dawn, but the comments on the photo speak to me more. It’s like you sometimes hit the nail on the head so hard I don’t even know how to react….

    • Sarah said,

      You get it too, Sarah? Wow. The good thing is if it works for you, you can potentially have all the things that the photo invokes. And maybe one day I will have them, in some other way that works for me. 🙂

    • hennamenna said,

      I couldn’t have said this better!

      I haven’t been around in a while…not much time lately but while busy with life, I am still spinning wildly. Some days I resolve to just let it go…and have for a while there..then other days it just hits me like a ton of bricks-what do I believe? Can I really believe this wholeheartedly? Can I “belong” to this “group” with all my unconventional, unwavering and contradicting views on so many subjects? Can I really truly just let it be? Most often the answer is no…but still I march on, trying and believing that I must be on the right path. Only time will tell.

      I think that in the end, I believe all sorts of things and cannot comfortably “belong” to one set group. In the end, I am not sure that I will be able to raise those “good obedient righteous Muslims” that I-on most days-long to raise. In the end, I predict my husband will realize how much time he’s wasted and when he decides to BE that Muslim he should be according to his upbringing and beliefs, he will see how different we truly are and how I am NOT the women he should have chose to have children with-if that is what he wanted(will want in the the future) This is why I do admire you for all your thoughts and well thought out posts about your struggles…you seem to be doing it now rather than later…looking at it from all sides and if you will be able to be that Muslim wife you’re expected to be-something most of us fail at even though we try desperately out of love for the men we married.

      I wish you nothing but the best and still love reading your posts.

      • Sarah said,

        Nice to see you, Hennamenna!

        “I think that in the end, I believe all sorts of things and cannot comfortably “belong” to one set group.”

        Me too.

        I think your husband is lucky to have you, and I’m sure he knows it. Just because you might not see eye to eye on everything doesn’t mean you don’t love each other or value each other. Sometimes love means you compromise; sometimes love means you set each other free. That’s life and nothing to feel bad about, or so I tell myself. Easier said than done. 😉

        Thanks for your good wishes.

  6. sanil said,


    Thanks for posting this, I think that’s exactly what I was trying to get at in the long rambly ranty post I just made but couldn’t find the words for. It is completely true, and I needed to hear it from someone else today. I am so very very glad I met you.

    • Sarah said,

      I’m glad to have met you too, and glad this post rang true for you – always good to hear!

  7. Achelois said,

    Oh Sarah, how I love thee let me count the ways!

    Love your blog, this post and you. This is full of emotion and also honest truth. That is why I love your blog so much. You have the strength to speak the truth which is such a rare quality.

    This post brought a lump in my throat. I pray for you (although like you I don’t really know what I think about God’s intervention) but I see prayer as a form of worship, if you will. a kind of acknowledgment that says “I know you exist God. And I know you can hear me whether or not you will listen.” And so I pray “Dear God, please bless my friend Sarah and bring her closer to peace and tranquility of heart.” Amen.

    • Sarah said,

      Love you too! ❤

      Thanks for your prayer. I surely don't know if prayer works, but I still pray from time to time. It can't do any harm, right? 😉 And it's always so touching when someone says they are praying for you.

      He admitted today that he was always hoping I would convert, and thought it was a strong possibility because I was "a nice girl with good values". Seeing the confidence with which his friend could marry a convert he barely knows and have a child with her, I guess part of my attraction to Islam was wanting him to have that confidence in me. It makes sense now.

      • Achelois said,

        Ever since I wrote on Hinduism a lot of readers have been emailing me stuff about India. One wrote to me about a Shia Muslim Indian actress of yesteryears called Meena Kumari (real name Mehjabeen Bano). Kumari was 19 when she fell in love with a Shia Muslim film director twice her age. She soon became his third wife. The first wife had died, second gave him two children but he never wanted children from Kumari.


        She wasn’t Syed! Syeds are supposed to be the direct descendants of Ali and Fatima. Apparently, it is a huge issue with Shias in South Asia. A Syed will never marry a non-Syed and if they do get married, they will not have children with the non-Syeds.

        I think of it as very unfortunate and racist. If you are a “nice girl with good values” you should be good enough to have his children. In fact, I think you would have made a great mum to them. You are not racist. I have witnessed you being honest and very kind to your readers. I remember when you had just announced you wouldn’t convert and yet cared for the feelings of those readers who wished you’d convert and didn’t want you to criticise Islam. If I were a man I would notice such small details that show your strong character and sweet nature.

        Well, his loss!

  8. Sarah Elizabeth said,

    I think it is hard for a marriage if one doesn’t sacrifice much but expects the other one to sacrifice, with little compassion for what they are going through. The way you explain the cultural aspects of Islam and rituals that your husband will not bend on makes me believe possibly he is not big on sacrificing for you.

    Why bend to the point of breaking while the other one simply watches and tells you to bend even further? Not worth it. That is not teamwork, that is stress and pressure.

    I feel for you Sarah, especially on the children issue. I think you are both wise to question whether or not you should have kids. Can you imagine trying to raise a daughter when neither of you agree on proper ways to raise one?

    I don’t think I am ready for kids yet either because I want to make sure he is not going to change on me all of a sudden. It seems to happen quite often. That would be a problem for me because I am happy the way I am.

    • Sarah said,

      Sarah E. – yes, thankfully we are being realistic about this!

      I honestly don’t know any more whether they really change, or whether they just aren’t honest with themselves or their wives about what they want from the beginning. I think it could well be that my husband knew what he wanted all along, but didn’t tell me because it would have scared me away or pressured me, and just hoped I would gradually come around to wanting the same thing. It’s only when I arrived at my religious conclusions that the hope disappeared, and here we are finally facing up to the truth about what he wanted.

      So I think if you have found your way that works for you, and if your husband understands that you are not likely to change again, then you are probably seeing his true feelings about it. I guess he could change… depends how much of a thinker he is or how much he could be influenced by other people. I don’t think my husband will change his religious views as he doesn’t read and doesn’t want to explore or discuss his beliefs with anyone, just wants to keep them as they are.

  9. cairolusakaamsterdam said,

    Heart-wrenching post! I really enjoyed reading it 🙂

    “how I could never honestly tell my family to hide the ham because we’re coming over or to hold the presents until Christmas is well over, how I could never feel any shame if a man saw my hair, and how frightened I would be that my children might learn to hate those who are not like them.”

    But there are so many Muslims who don’t agree with any of those things, myself included. Did you write that because it is the way your husband would want things?

    I grew up with a Christian mother and Muslim father. Ham was never hidden from us; we always had Christmas presents; I don’t feel any shame when a man sees my hair; and I don’t hate people who are not like me. That isn’t Islam for me and for most Muslims I personally know.

    • Sarah said,

      Yes, I was illustrating the type of Muslim I would need to be for my husband to be confident about having a family with me. I would have had to believe in it his way if that was ever going to be me in a photo like that.

      In the end of course I couldn’t be any type of Muslim, but this post was more about the traditional Islam of my husband that attracted me in the first place and the fact that it still attracts me somewhat as I look at these photos, even though aspects of it also repel me.

  10. Sarah Elizabeth said,

    Yes, I think the attraction is for that sense of belonging. At least that is what I see when I look at this photo. It is kinda like that fantasy land happy family syndrome.

  11. Indian Pundit said,

    Hello Wrestler
    Great post.
    This line struck me as quite ODD:-

    “to hold the presents until Christmas is well over, how I could never feel any shame if a man saw my hair,”
    This is quite different as per my experiences.
    Plz try visiting India and Pakistan if possible.
    In my university here in India…..i have quite a few muslim female friends …most of them dont cover their hairs….and we do “celebrate” Christmas even though none of us are Christians 🙂

    Even in Pakistan….Christmas is celebrated in big cities as per many Pakistani newspapers……..also hijabless women are very common in Pakistan and among Indian muslims.

    So i think the question of “shame” does not even arise in the minds of many muslims…..and Christmas too is celebrated by them.

    But i dont know about Arabs……..

    • Sarah said,

      Hi Indian Pundit,
      It would be nice to visit South Asia, for sure.

      Islam sounds quite moderate and “open” over there. If I was married to someone with that attitude, things would probably work out OK. My husband’s culture (Algeria) is a bit more conservative and strict.

      I think even as little as 10 years ago a lot of women in Algeria wore European clothes – I was quite shocked when I saw that in his family photos. Now the majority wear the hijab. Maybe it’s partly that they are re-asserting their Arab/Muslim identity after the colonials have left. I don’t really blame them for that.

      I get the impression that as a society they are re-discovering their religion and holding on tightly to it. My husband taught his own parents to pray, in the past the family were all non-practicing. A lot of changes in a small amount of time! But the more they get into religion, the harder it is to coexist happily with someone like me.

  12. Lat said,

    I know that some muslim men are more strict than others.I have one in my family.He only sees ‘his way’ to understanding religion, which his wife,my sis, and children don’t agree with,and who btw are all muslims too.

    What I mean is this sort of thing can happen with same religious people too.But what is troubling in your case,is about not having children because of issues with upbringing.

    I had a friend in elementary sch,Malika.She was a typical Hindu girl adorned with all hindu like symbols,praying and doing classical dance and all that.I even knew her mom.Then much later I found out that her bro had a muslim name.Then I asked her about this.She told me her mom was Hindu and her father a muslim.Her mom wanted to call her malika and do all the things a Hindu girl is supposed to do.I suppose her bro,Gani,did things differently which she didn’t seem to elaborate.
    Her father has somehow found a way to come to terms with his Hindu wife.I now remember very clearly that malika married a muslim man and she was very much muslim wearing the Indian muslim sort of nuptial string.

    Her father’s perception towards religion,her and her bro may have had an impact on her decision to marrying a muslim man.I’m of course unaware if she had discussed similar thoughts like her mom to her husband.That would be interesting to know! But in your case it’ll be so much easier,being Christian and all.That is why I find it a little odd that he married you and yet hesitate when it comes to having children.

    I understand that things could have been different if your husband is not so ‘strict’ religiously.I’ll include you and your husband in my prayer.And hope that you two can find a way to enhance your relationship together,Inshallah.

    • Sarah said,

      Hi Lat,
      Thanks for sharing these interesting stories. You are right, it can happen this way with two people in the same religion, and any religion at that. If someone has a very specific way of seeing things and feels strongly about it, they will not easily get along with someone unless they think the same way.

      Your friend Malika’s family sounds quite open-minded. I like the idea of having aspects of both faiths in the family life.

      Thanks for your prayers, that is really touching! I think it is probably the end of the road for my marriage, but who knows, maybe he will change his mind after all.

  13. susanne430 said,

    Just wanted to check on you. Been thinking about you. Praying for you . . .

    • Sarah said,

      Thanks Susanne, thank you so much just for being here and for caring. It means a lot. xx

      I’m cheering myself up by eating too much cake and shopping for a new laptop! Retail therapy!

  14. Maitham said,

    Sarah, I feel for you. Your husband does sound rather rigid and reactionary, but his view may yet change, or perhaps yours. One thing I find interesting– from a *traditional* Arab perspective, to be married for 6 years with no kids is very odd. If he really was just waiting to see if you’d flip for him, then that was not very honest… but have you considered that maybe there just was not that much fire to begin with?

    I agree with you that one of the things fueling experimentation with Islam in the US is a longing for traditional values… the most traditional Christian churches are often tangled up with odd-seeming articles of faith, and more liberal churches seem to be running from tradition as from the pox. I think that there is still room for a socially-conservative humanist movement to enter the scene. But (really) moderate Islam probably isn’t too far from that.

    • Sarah said,

      Maitham, welcome and thanks for commenting.

      Yes, 6 years is a long time without kids in his culture.

      “I think that there is still room for a socially-conservative humanist movement to enter the scene.”

      Interesting point! I do think there’s a lack of secular moral instruction in modern western cultures, and this needs to be addressed.

      • caraboska said,

        Hmmm… on the Continent, say in Germany and Poland, the rule seems to be that you must have at least either secular ethics or religious instruction (the latter either at school or by special arrangement with the instructors at your church so that the grade can be submitted to your school and go on your report card). Some schools, especially private ones, require both.

        • Sarah said,

          There is something like that in schools here, but I am not aware of any Humanist equivalent of Christian Sunday School or youth groups. Maybe there is one, I don’t know.

          Or maybe what kids learn at home has the most impact and parents just need to get better at teaching their kids how to behave.

          • caraboska said,

            Check this out:


            It’s a humanist religious organization!

            • Sarah said,

              That looks amazing! They have children’s summer camps and everything 😀

              • caraboska said,

                They’re also very culturally active – their hall is considered a desirable place to do music recitals. That’s how I heard about them 🙂

            • Maitham said,

              Hi Caraboska. The ethical societies are interesting, but I don’t think they are answering the whole need. The people who are drawn to Islam are looking for firm social bonds and clearly defined rules that they hope will prevent their kids from ending up like Paris Hilton. Humanism so far doesn’t really seem to be talking to these people.

              • caraboska said,

                There is that. They are more into ‘values clarification’ – which is of course useful as a point of departure. What I see missing from that is the questioning ‘what is behind that value?’ peeling back the layers of the onion until one reaches the point beyond which one can go no further. And then asking, ‘Am I satisfied knowing that that is my ultimate value? Is this something that can carry the weight of an ultimate value? Or is this something that could come crashing down around me?’ I see this kind of thinking as missing from the humanist type of thinking. But humanism obviously does speak to some people 🙂

  15. venn said,

    Hi Sarah.I was just thinking of sending you an email about this when I decided to see if you had updated.
    Again it’s so amazing and quite unbelievable to know that what is on your post is exactly my thoughts.I can’t emphasize enough how amazing it is.
    As much as I’d love to feel protected by being a muslim,I just cannot believe in it.Even though some of the things mentioned in Islam is logical and I agree with it.Something in my heart and my mind still can’t quite accept it.I feel a lot more content believing in what I believe in. I feel no need to belong to a particular religion.
    I wish you the very best 🙂

    • Sarah said,

      Hi Venn,
      I am truly amazed at how many people can relate to these thoughts. It seems there are quite a lot of us who go through this.

      I hope we can take the values we appreciate from religions and apply them to our lives and relationships without joining the religion. It’s a happy picture but what if the man decides he needs to discipline the wife, or wants to exercise his “right” to take a second wife? I think it’s the goodness of people that gives us protection, not religion. 😉

      Best wishes too and keep in touch!

      • caraboska said,

        Umm, yeah. That is true in any religion – that it can be warped to serve those who would like to think they are ‘authority figures’. Practically speaking, since you cannot influence other people’s behavior, this means that it is up to us to protect ourselves – with God’s help.

      • Venn said,

        Yes I agree,it is the goodness of people that give us protection.
        I just wish there were more people who don’t feel the need to convince everyone that there is only one right path 🙂
        Take care!

  16. anonymous said,

    Oh yes it is. People can believe whatever they want whether they like it or not,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: