A few times now I have been contacted by mainly younger Egyptian friends who are feeling down or are in a semi-panicked state. They confide in me, as if telling me a deep dark secret, that they have doubts about religion. They are scared. They are frightened to tell anyone about their doubts and thus be judged and told they are going down that slippery road towards hell that we keep hearing about. They are frightened that having doubts means they are indeed on their way to hell.
They have doubts and they have absolutely no idea where to turn. Sometimes they do not know where to start to address these doubts. In our culture, we have been taught from a very early age that even though Islam is a religion where there are no intermediaries between one and His God, we can only get information about our religion from “trusted” Islamic scholars. We are often not encouraged to do our own research into questions of religion lest we stray the way and stumble into ideas and information that we are not strong enough to handle or not knowledgeable enough to differentiate what is “right” in that information from what is “wrong”.
These friends will tell me that they have started to try researching more or they will say something amongst friends that signifies they have started on a journey of re-learning religion and their friends will vilify them. Or, even worse sometimes, their friends will start trying to save them from the horrible thing he or she is about to do to themselves. Friends or family members will at once start showing concern, vamped-up love, or contempt towards this person who feels a need to understand and to rekindle faith.
When discussions are had with friends, they are frequently emotional. “I’m frightened for you,” a friend might say. Or “You used to be so ‘good’. What has happened to you?” another will comment. Or “You have surrounded yourself with the wrong people!” yet another will state.
It scares me that our society fears doubt so much. Ever since I was a child, whenever I asked what happens to non-Muslims when they die? Where do they go? What if they didn’t know about Islam or did not have enough information about it? I have been told that it is their responsibility to search for truth. The idea is always, of course, that if they go on that journey in the right manner they will inevitably discover Islam as the one true religion.
We do not encourage Muslims, however, to go on similar journeys. We are taught our own religion from the day we are born. We are taught the right “version” of our religion in our schools and within our families. Most of us will have been blatantly discouraged by the religious folk around us from looking into other religions. While I was a university student closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, I was instructed only to read books that I was told to read. I was not knowledgeable enough, they informed me, to know how to refute ideas that were contrary to Islam; and of course, they always had to be refuted. There was no truth beyond the truth of Islam as these people wanted me to understand it. It is not just the Muslim Brotherhood that thinks this way. This is a general sentiment among many, if not most, conservative Muslims in Egypt.
Lately I have heard lots of talk, mainly from Muslim Brotherhood members, of the need to guide Egyptian society back to its roots of conservatism. So many Egyptians, they say, have been misguided by the “intellectual invasion” of Western societies. It is as if the only reason anybody might stray from Islam or from their version of Islam is because conspirators (there are always conspirators) have brainwashed people to think differently and to engage in different lifestyles. It is as if these Muslim conservatives see themselves as the only people allowed to do the brainwashing around here. It is as if the basic assumption is that we are stupid. We are easily influenced. We cannot make up our own minds and need that guiding hand to take us up the right path. It is also an assumption that shows a complete disregard for the fact that Egyptian society has always been a complex mesh of intellectual thought and ideas rather than a homogeneous blanket of Muslim Brotherhood ideology.
I mention the Muslim Brotherhood only because they are so dominant on the scene in Egypt today and their words have been made well known. But this general way of thinking is quite widespread among conservative and even semi-conservative Muslims in our country. Do not doubt. Do not express doubt. Do not stray. Do not read about other ideas lest you be brainwashed.
The fact is: none of this has anything to do with the true essence of Islam. The Holy Qur’an teaches us to think, to meditate, to observe, and to seek. My personal experience with some Islamic scholars has been that they are open to calm discussion about doubts one may have. Most of them are not frightened by the concept of doubt. They will respond to one’s questions with the knowledge they have. Most of them will not encourage you, however, to do a comparative study of other thoughts and religions. Nor will they necessarily encourage you to speak to an Islamic scholar who belongs to a different school of thought. Or worse, to discuss your thoughts with scholars in other areas of knowledge or religion. “You will only confuse yourself,” is the basic premise.
This was not always the case. Islam has a long history of Islamic scholars engaging in healthy philosophical debates about issues of religion, often coming to the conclusion that they simply do not have an answer.
How can one reach that much sought after state of certitude, that which we call in Islam yaqeen, without going through a long journey with doubt? My personal stance has become that doubt is my only trustworthy life companion. As long as I doubt, I live. As long as I live, I shall doubt. If God did not create the human brain to doubt, then where would we be as a human race? How would we ever evolve? How would we ever learn and re-learn then re-learn again? How would societies develop? How could truths ever be found and untruths ever be refuted?
I am even unsure whether God means for us to ever reach a state of certitude in our lifetime. For when one is certain, one assumedly stops searching. Certitude, nevertheless, is a great objective to aim for. I would rather face God on the Day of Judgment and say to Him, “Oh Allah. I have spent my days and nights in doubt, searching for the truth. Stumbling into small truths here and there and making many mistakes along the way. But I have worked hard. I have tried. My life was a journey of doubt, contemplation, and searching;” than to have to say, “Oh Allah. I just knew it all along. I was told. I complied. I blindly obeyed. I never strayed. I never questioned. I never searched. I never doubted. And here I am.”
A society that fears doubt has no faith. True faith can only stem from true doubt. If you have doubted and have reached faith as a result of a long journey with doubt, you will understand the necessity that others engage in this journey as well. If you have never doubted yet you believe, then your faith can only be described as blind faith. In my mind, that means that you are the furthest thing in the world from being “in the light”. If you have blind faith, you are in the dark. I have no intention of following you into your dark place.
My answer to my Muslim friends has been: Do not fear doubt. What you should truly fear is never searching for truth. Go on your journey. Question. Doubt. Read. Search. Research. Discuss. Gain knowledge and information. Your journey may lead you straight back to the point of faith where you started. If it leads you elsewhere, would you not prefer to be where you truly belong – in a belief system based on knowledge and discovery – than to be somewhere you simply found yourself in?
Doubt is a blessing. It means your brain is alive. As it should be. And it is there where I live my days.