by Guy Wilkinson
from Signs of the Times No. 73 - April 2019

Leaving Faith behind is a series of chapters by different authors who have chosen to leave Islam. One of them, Aliyah Saleem, has co-edited the collection with Fiyaz Mughal a continuing Muslim.

This is a book well worth reading for three main reasons. First because although the essays are all by people who have left Islam, much of what is written would apply to people leaving any religious community. The issues of gender and sexuality, reason and loss of faith are to be found amongst people leaving all the main religions.

Secondly, because the accounts are personal rather than polemical. In other words, as would be expected from Fiyaz Mughal, a believing Muslim, this short book does not read as an attack on Islam but as a plea for a more liberal understanding by religious communities of those who ask questions.

Thirdly, because this book is a plea for an honest conversation between those who have left Islam and their religious communities about their respective futures. He is much concerned that the Islamism of those who have retreated into narrow fundamentalisms, not only betrays classical Islam, but increases the numbers of those leaving the faith. He calls for an honest conversation within Islam to diminish the very real dangers for those who leave Islam and for the Islamic community to recognize that such attitudes damage the faith itself.

Through all the five personal accounts a woundedness and regret is clearly present – of both the person leaving and of those around them, their families and friends – as well as a strong sense of freedom and integrity gained.

Aliyah Saleem, co-editor, speaks of her journey from a rebellious teenager to a “fully veiled fundamentalist Muslim” from where as she studied and argued, her faith” started slowly to ebb away”, bringing her eventually to the atheist that she is today. Her hope is that her story will enable those who leave “to find the courage inside that is necessary to live an authentic life without the most debilitating of emotions: shame”.

Hassan Radwan’s loss of faith was a more gradual process of questioning the roots of the spiritual awakening he experienced. He felt at home in the Tablighi Jamaat and “admired the writings of some of the great Sufi luminaries” and taught at the Islamia school for fifteen years. His loss of faith was triggered by 9/11 and the rise of Islamism and began with questioning about the place of women and the hellish fate of non-Muslims, but it was not until in his fifties that his faith finally dissipated when he came to feel “reinvigorated”.

For Jimmy Bangash it was about gender and sexuality. He opens his chapter with the striking statement that: “the twenty first century belongs to women of Muslim heritage… who will claim their rightful place within the world”. He writes very personally of the experiences of his sister at the hands of his brothers, of honour, guardianship and obedience and then turns to his own experience as a gay Muslim man.

Marwa Shami, for whom her loss of faith was rooted, as for so many, in the restrictions and constraints on women, has kept her loss of faith more private.

For Aisha Hussain the online world initially became the place to defend the Islam she had grown up into until at some time at university her deep questions about meaning brought about increasing doubt, transition and confrontation.

Fiyaz confirms what we know from general human experience – that where communities feel themselves under threat, as do many Muslim communities, their ability to tolerate dissent and what is seen as disloyalty, is diminished and liberal and tolerant voices are increasingly embattled.

The lesson for all, religious or not, is that we need a society in which no one has to fear because of their faith or loss of it. 

Guy Wilkinson is a former Inter Religious Affairs adviser to the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury.