Is Doubting Religion Something to Fear?

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.

14 comments

  1. Wonderful article and thanks for opening this topic publicly! I have the same in my surrounding… When people tell me they doubt I encourage them to study and ask, from different angles, but not (just) the learned scholars we are always told to refer to… I always tell them ‘I’m sure you won’t stray but come closer to God than ever before… You might give up some things you were told to do but you realized that they are not from God, but you will come out stronger, knowing yourself and God much better…’ It’s a life-long journey/school… Just in the morning I came to work with yet another book about Islam (the third in one month), this time by Amina Wadud ‘Inside the Gender Jihad’ and my colleague told me sth like ‘you are always reading such books’ and I replied, ‘yes it’s so important that we read about religion’ and she replied ‘religion? we learn everything in school, not need to learn more’ and though I think she might have meant it a bit ironically, it reflects the attitude of so many sadly… I realized that we can never really believe if we don’t have a choice… we can’t show God that we ‘got it’ if we don’t have the option of choices which is why I am absolutely against a Saudi-style forced Islam that breads so much hypocrisy… I think that Islam has been hijacked from inside, by Puritans… Whoever wants a good read that opens your eyes about puritan (that became so prevailing over the past decades) and moderate Islam, I strongly encourage to read ‘The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists’ by Dr. Khaled Abou Fadl.

    Maybe it would be a good idea to use this article to suggest books/ articles that could be helpful on the way of exploring Islam and other related topics?

    Ask, Learn, Grow!

    Salam

    1. Hi Nadia & T,

      I absoutely love your article and T’s response. I am a converted and used to ask so many questions basic questions about Islam that muslim took it for granted. Most of the time, I got the look from those older sisters that they doubt of my conversion. They hinted that I should just “obey” and Islam is about submission. I know somehow they misunderstood the meaning of submission.

      I wish I have more like minded people holding the same attitude about religions. I dislike, disgust hearing anything about how the Saudi environment treating women. Now that I have a daughter, she also questions the status of women in Islam all the time. She always wonder where are the right of women in Islam nowadays if muslims always stress that Islam respect women and uphold the gender equaltiy.

      It’s good to question, to doubt. As long as I live, I doubt; as long as I doubt I live. Thanks. Spread it out.

  2. I am a Christian, but this resonates so strongly with me that I have tears in my eyes. The longer I live and the more I read and think the more I realize how little we know. I believe that to be dogmatic on all the technical details of theology is to put God into a box. He is so much bigger than that.

    Here is a verse I love from Proverbs 25:2: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”

    May God bless us all in our search for truth–and may we, in the end, find what we long for.

  3. I was born a Muslim and also told as a young girl to not ask difficult questions, I was horrified by visions of hellfire and countless other ways in which I would be tortured by God if I didn’t follow the rules. But I eventually came to a place where I doubted Islam for a number of years. Living in London, even though i went to a saudi school, it was very easy to not follow the rules, and in the end I moved to Egypt, because I wanted to live in a Muslim society, and learn about Islam properly. What I found disappointed me extremely, but it lead me to do my own research, and even though my Arabic wasn’t great,to study the Quran objectively, I came to my own conclusions and I felt at peace with Islam once again because I understood it properly. If i hadn’t doubted, I would never have gotten to this place of peace.

  4. my only concern ya Nadia is that at a certain point you actually pre judged exactly as they do.

    “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”

    1. We all judge in one way or another, don’t we Salwa?

      I would, however, categorize that statement as opinion. My opinion is that blind faith can corrupt societies. It means the mind isn’t working and that, in my view, is a scary thing, especially when it is widespread. My assumption is that many if not most of the people I know have gone through one process or another of using their brains to reach the point of faith that they are at. I know, however, that many others have not. I have no problem with anybody who has reached a point of faith, whatever the faith, by using their brains. I have serious concerns, though, about people having faith without seriously thinking about it and questioning it at one phase or another.

  5. There are two types of doubts, detrimental and constructive. Detrimental doubt is when you doubt just to be skeptical and have no solid purpose or aim. Constructive means to doubt so that so can gain knowledge and verify truths. Nice blog post!

  6. How can we believe in something if we don’t know why we believe it and what ‘our options’ are?!
    You can only choose your belief by knowing, comparing and rejecting every other option.
    So indeed the majority of believers (of any faith) are inheritants, but only some of those believers have studied and analysed and made a concious choice.
    This is why those who inherited a faith will doubt and argue and not practice (often without really making an effort to find a solution). However, those who choose their faith are usually the most observant and in a much ‘satisfied’ status (even if they will need to keep refreshing their status)…
    I say doubt is the first step of a lot of hardwork that should have an honest target of really comprehending and seeking a truth, it should not just turn into a lazy doubtful status quo…

  7. Even the believers in the New Testament were commended for searching the scripture and making sure that what they were being taught was true. We should all seek the complete truth for ourselves, not just accept what others tell us is so.

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