Ramadan question #1 — What about thinking, and questioning?

I know the scripted answer to this question, of course—at least in North America, especially as found in popular dawah literature and online stuff:


Yes, of course! Islam is the religion of logic, thinking, science, and seeking knowledge! Sister, haven’t you heard about all the scientific miracles in the Qur’an?? And look at this white convert brother’s youtube video where he explains why he left Christianity and embraced Islam, because his pastor used to always tell him to “have faith” when he had questions, but Muslims could answer all the questions that he had!!….

But that’s NOT what I’m talking about. That’s apologetics. It allows thinking and questioning, but only as long as your questions remain within the predictable, and the answers don’t undermine “mainstream” conservative Muslim ideas of “what Islam teaches.” It is meant to support faith, and as soon as the questioning threatens to not do that, it is shut down immediately with pat answers and dismissive claims.

Or another scripted answer:

Yes, of course! Muslim scholars of the past discussed everything, from God’s attributes to prophethood and revelation, as well as the relationship of faith to deeds, fate (qadr)… and many other theological questions. Have you read al-Ghazali’s Deliverance from Error? Read kalaam. With a teacher who is qualified with an ijaza, of course. You start out reading basic aqida, and then students with the aptitude may progress to more advanced texts. And for very advanced students, there is Sufi metaphysics, again, with a properly qualified teacher….

Again, not what I mean by thinking and questioning. Those sorts of texts are complex, and thinking through them is certainly a very cerebral process… but in the end, the thinking and questioning must remain within strict limits. There are certain questions that cannot be asked, really, and the results of the questions you are allowed to ask are essentially predetermined.

The entire exercise reminds me of shooting fish in a barrel. Or, of Forugh Farrokhzad‘s lines in her poem, “Wind-up Doll”: “whether adding, subtracting, or multiplying / like zero, one can obtain a constant result.”


Islam as I was taught it had a very ambivalent approach to thinking and questioning. On one hand, in theory it was promoted. But at the same time, we were always being told that such-and-such is not open to question, or that asking such questions implies/leads to kufr.

The questions that were most obviously taboo in the communities I was involved in related to God’s existence, the Qur’an’s status as divine revelation, the Prophet’s theological status, the reliability and authority of the hadith (as a whole, as well as of the Sahih al-Bukhari and the Sahih Muslim), the divine status and universal applicability of the Sharia to Muslims, the divinely-given nature of certain “hot-button” identity-related legal rulings (such as on hijab, the forbidden nature of pork, etc), and so forth. These questions had their well-rehearsed answers, naturally, but it was taboo to probe beyond that.

In a sense, all the fuss and bother about issues like those concealed the existence of even more taboo questions. It was even more taboo to ask ethical questions. Or to ask historical questions. Or literary questions. And those are the kinds of questions that most interest (and preoccupy) me.

Looking back, I can’t help but think that the god we were taught to worship was an awfully frail god. A god that couldn’t endure his creation asking quite basic and logical questions. A very cruel god—a god that creates human beings with the ability and the drive to think and question, and with an inclination to honesty… then punishes them for sincere questioning.

This seems to be a case of humans making a god in their own image. Just as the Muslim communities I was involved in were often defensive about their faith and threatened by the scrutiny and judgment of the wider non-Muslim society (for a lot of social and political reasons…), in much the same way, god wanted us all to toe the line and say and do and believe the “right” things and present a unified, unruffled “company” face and avoid causing fitna.

So, we were effectively taught that (Islamic) monotheism is incompatible with thinking. “Islam” means “submission,” after all—and as the Salafis were fond of saying, “It is here for us to submit to.” “He [God] will not be questioned; it is us who will be questioned,” as one of our shaykhs used to say.

And if religious fear wasn’t enough to silence questioners, then identity-related fears would be leveraged. Doubt would be cast on the motivations of anyone asking such questions. Because their motivations could only be to undermine the true faith. They recognized the truth, but didn’t want to follow it because they wanted to indulge in sins or worldly pastimes instead, so they posed such questions in order to make excuses for their failure to obey God. Or, they were filled with pride and arrogance. Or even, they were brainwashed by the “enemies of Islam” and they asked such questions in order to cause fitna and destroy Islam…. But in any case, they don’t really have faith. Because anyone who has a true and sincere faith won’t ask those kinds of probing questions.

It wasn’t surprising that (1) we were basically afraid to question, and (2) that other people’s questions were deeply threatening to us, and (3) we found it difficult to see how sincere questioning that refuses to be fobbed off with pat answers is at all compatible with monotheism.

But now I wonder how our attitudes to questioning that we had back then could possibly be congruent with monotheism. Hadn’t we made an idol of “Islam”? Didn’t we in effect see God as too frail to endure honest thinking and questioning? Or too cruel to permit it? A god that, like the imams and “scholars” that we encountered, didn’t want our honesty but our adulation and unthinking obedience??


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  1. #1 by luckyfatima on July 24, 2013 - 1:04 am

    Oh, there’s one missing (but implied)! “Don’t be like the people of the cow.”

  2. #3 by luckyfatima on July 24, 2013 - 1:11 am

    Sorry to serial comment, but I thought of another one that was said to me by a friend: “Oh, no! Maybe that is Satan whispering into your ear.”

    • #4 by xcwn on July 25, 2013 - 11:03 pm

      luckyfatima—lol. Yes, we were always afraid that Satan might be the source of our questions or doubts… almost as bad as SNL’s “Church Lady” skit. 😦

  3. #5 by asiahkelley on July 24, 2013 - 5:00 pm

    You’ve hit the nail on the head for me. We were worshipping some god that man had created. Since having my daughter, I’ve had quite a lot of questions, many such as yours. And I would get so frustrated with what I thought Islam was, what I had been taught, bc it didn’t serve me anymore. It didn’t fit into my lifestyle as a new mother and I thought that was my fault. I was angry at god that he could create this situation-new motherhood and yet still expect all the things the internet shaykhs and religious org volunteers told me I had to do. It wasn’t fair. Then one day I realized that if god is The Truth and The Most Just- justice itself , then I realized we’ve gotten it all wrong. Whatever this is we think Islam is, and who god is, is created by man. As u say so perfectly, an idol. Your questions are helping to break and smash the idols sister. Keep it up. I love your site.

  4. #6 by nmr on July 24, 2013 - 6:20 pm

    God is not afraid questions, but religious institutions, particularly ones of an authoritarian nature, certainly are. The organizational institution of religion will do its utmost to restrict knowledge, dismiss questioning, ridicule critical thinking, and suppress individual creativity (because where that creative streak takes you is unpredictable and might threaten their institution). The business of a religious institution is to maintain the institution. Questioning undermines their authority and credibility.

    God, on the other hand, gave you a particular set of gifts and He expects you to use them to your utmost. And if you were blessed with a brain that questions, then use it. Chances are, you aren’t the only one with those questions, but you may be the only one with the temerity to raise them.

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